Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Well, hello there.

As my husband and I drove home from our New Year's Eve dinner, I decided we should recap our 2011. We both thought hard but came up with little; we dredged up a few brights spots, like Little E's new school, then some lowlights that I'd managed to forget and a vacation that will likely be my anti-prototype when planning any future trips. And then my husband helpfully offered, "Well, you wrote a blog, and then you stopped."

For the rush of shame I felt, he may as well have said, "Well, you backed over the neighbors' cat and then you buried it in the yard under the cover of darkness."

At first I thought my embarrassment came from having spent a year pretending that my sage insights about life were important enough to share with the world. And certainly that was part of it. But not the biggest part of it, I realized.

What felt the most shameful was that I'd stopped.

I started writing here when I went from working full-time to working part-time; it seemed like a productive use of my extra time. I made a promise to myself that I would maintain this blog for a year, and for the most part, it was a good use of my extra time. I got to play with words, I got to process through weird feelings that I might have otherwise shoved awkwardly aside, and I even got to cash a couple of (meager) paychecks for my writing.

After a while, though, it started to feel like an obligation --a pretty fruitless one. Also, I started to question the wisdom of sharing my life and, particularly, my children with faceless strangers. (This particular concern sprang from the frequency with which members of my "audience" landed here while searching for a bodily fluid associated primarily with the bedroom; this creepy misdirection is apparently how Google punishes gratuitous use of Latin.) Mostly, though, I started to cringe at how incredibly lame it was for me to be offering myself up as some latterday Erma Bombeck-cum-Martha Stewart (Drat! I've gone and done it again.)

So, I convinced myself that having fulfilled my original mission I would stop completely and move on to new challenges and creative outlets. I took longer runs. I threw myself into creating new curriculum at work. I decided to make my own accessories, yielding a strange necklace crafted from an old t-shirt and copious amounts of hot glue. Still, I found myself wondering if my food wouldn't taste just a little better if I painstakingly arranged and photographed it before I dug in. I mentally composed posts expounding on jogging as a metaphor for life and offering snarky advice to New Year's resolution gym-joiners. (Clearly, I've been sitting on some ground breaking stuff.)

Recently it occurred to me that as I am my own boss in this venture, I could really make my own hours. It's not as if anyone will likely notice whether I update twice a week. (Except for you, perverse googler of bodily fluids. You've been checking in faithfully, and for that I owe you a grudging respect and some clarification: This is really not the site you're looking for.) As for being lame, as both a mother and a high school teacher I am reminded of my capacity for lameness several times a day; writing an occasional blog post probably won't make me any uncool-er than I already am.

So I'm hoping that next New Year's Eve our year-end recap will require fewer searching pauses and be full of thrilling successes, familial bliss, and, most importantly, a vacation devoid of fist-pounding frustration or icily silent stretches of highway.

Also, I hope that my husband will be able to say, "You started writing that blog again . . .sort of."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dream: My last day of 35

For the first time in my life I am dreading my birthday.

I don't know if this is the result or the cause of the way I've been feeling lately: both overwhelmed by the suffocating minutiae of grown up life, the laundry to fold and play doh to scrape from the carpet, the groceries to buy and children to scold, and underwhelmed by the payoff, more laundry, play doh, groceries and stern talkings-to. 

In an effort to avoid one of these gray moods, I decided not to think about the birthday coming tomorrow. Instead, I've been thinking about the birthday I had twenty years ago when I turned 16 and realized for the first time that I wouldn't be a kid forever. . .a notion which, back then, filled me with hopeful optimism.

I got two things on my sixteenth birthday: my learner's permit and a black leather motorcycle jacket. It didn't matter that in the six months that I drove on the permit I burnt through the clutches on both of my parents' cars, nor that I killed any potential coolness of the jacket by wearing it with french-cuffed Z. Cavariccis and shoe boots; the gifts I got for my sixteenth birthday were the tender shoots of the grown up life I was sure was just waiting to blossom for me. The permit promised freedom and the jacket, easily the edgiest piece of clothing I'd ever owned, hinted at adventure and excitement.

Twenty years later, I have no idea where my learner's permit or the bright shining freedom it represented ended up. The jacket, though, is still with me. Through several moves and countless closet purges I've kept it regardless of how poorly it would fit me or how foolish I would look in it should I try to wear it. I keep it because I loved it back then and because I still love the unknown possibilities it symbolized, even though grown up life has yet to present me with an occasion that demands black leather with wrist zippers.

I'm still not thrilled about what's coming tomorrow, but I'm trying to reframe it. I'll look at it as the twentieth anniversary of my sixteenth birthday, and hopefully I can motivate myself to put aside my mood and make this a year that lives up to the promise of the jacket.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Play: Even Steven, fair and square

One day when I was eight and my brother was four, as I sat in my third grade classroom laboring over my cursive letters and erasing holes in my math worksheets, my mother and my brother spent a fantastically fun day at Showbiz Pizza.

Showbiz Pizza was our Chuck E. Cheese and a place I had been only once, for a friend's extravagant birthday party.Hearing from my happy, blond bowl-cutted little brother about his exciting day, seeing his telltale helium balloon bobbing merrily in our living room, I felt stabbed in my pizza and skee ball-loving heart. My mother, hoping that I might respond rationally, downplayed the whole thing: he'd only had a hot dog, just a dollar's worth of tokens, they'd found the balloon in the ladies room.

None of it mattered to me. For months, I simmered over the two of them and their failure to spend their days sitting quietly on the living room couch waiting for the school bus to bring me home and signal the all clear to resume activity. For years, I included that day in my mental list of family slights.

It all ended last week with a  double chocolatey chip frappuccino.

I was out with Little E trying to kill time before we had to go home to the guys who were installing our cabinets and who tend to greet my midday return by smiling at me in a tolerant-but-just-barely way that makes me feel like I am their teacher and I have just invited myself to join their lunch table. Out of desperation for something to do, in the belief that I deserved a reward for my four hours of work and for putting up with the inconvenience of increasing my counter space, I decided that the conditions merited a mocha frappucinno.

As I steered toward Starbucks, I began to falter. Last spring during a frappuccino happy hour promotion, I had inadvertently (and ridiculously) gotten the girls hooked. A trip to Starbucks while Big E toiled in the classroom would be a jab to her heart, I knew, but I really wanted that drink. I realized then how my mother must have felt when, trying to entertain a preschooler and likely bored herself, she sought solace in a midday quickie at Showbiz Pizza. I decided that I couldn't just sit home and wait for the school bus, that Big E could get hers another time.

Torn between not wanting to hurt Big E with the knowledge of all the frappuccino-fueled fun that her sister and I would have that day, and not wanting to enourage overt dishonesty, I concocted a fiction that I thought would serve us all: I told Little E that sometimes if hearing about something would make someone sad, we should spare that person the upset and not tell her at all.

You can, of course, imagine the upset that ensued the next morning when the girls piled into the backseat for the ride to school and Big E saw in her sister's cupholder that telltale cup, with its taunting mermaid and haze of whipped cream residue. She was appeased only by the promise of her own trip to Starbucks that weekend.

And when that trip came to pass, Little E was furious to be left behind and feigned total ignorance of the concept of fairness and equity. More promises were made, and one day soon we will all be going to Chuck E. Cheese.

Fair's fair.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Eat: Upon my triumphant return to the kitchen. . .

We are in week five of our kitchen project.  This means that I have not cooked a rack of ribs, an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, not so much as a Monday Night Pizza in over a month.

I'm not complaining about being displaced from the kitchen. How bad can things be if you can afford to increase your counter space? As a bonus, just when I had convinced myself that having our kitchen done was a frivolous expense, our contractor informed us that when he and his crew pulled the walls down to replace a rotten window they found and fixed structural deficiencies that threatened to drop our second floor bedrooms into the basement one night as we slept. So, not only am I thankful for gleaming countertops and cabinets from this century, I am free from the guilt of an entirely cosmetic improvement.

I am realizing, however, how much I enjoy my time in the kitchen and how eager I am to get back to cooking. Over the past month I've accrued a lot of restaurant crayons in my purse, filled my freezer with an international smorgasbord of Trader Joe's offerings (and highly recommend the steamed pork buns), made frequent use of the grocery store salad bar and tried to get creative with a rotisserie chicken. In between all that, though, I've been making some plans for all that I shall accomplish up upon my triumphant return to the kitchen.

I've favorited these pumpkin muffins with dark chocolate and pistachios from Leena Eats. Not only are the flavors right up Big E's alley, but the recipe, with its molasses and whole wheat flour, looks significantly healthier than the frozen chocolate chip muffin tops we've been nuking for her every morning.

These homemade McRibs from Saveur.com aren't new to me, but of everything I've ever cooked these may be my favorite and so they are on the list. In fact, we've recently decided to make them a part of our new Christmas night tradition: homemade McRibs followed by a cheesy family movie at the nearly empty theater.

Speaking of holiday meals, when I get the kitchen back I'll audition these sweet potatoes with pecans and goat cheese from Smitten Kitchen for possible inclusion in our Thanksgiving dinner. They are essentially a sweet potato-based bruschetta and include some of my favorite flavors.

Food52.com has been a valuable source of food porn during my kitchenless weeks. Though after all of the restaurant bread baskets I've been hitting I probably don't need the carbs, I'm looking forward to making this Capellini with Nantucket Bay Scallops that I found there. I'm also hoping that my husband will make me this BEAT (bacon, egg, avocado, tomato) sandwich for breakfast one weekend; as I normally have a granola bar and a Diet Coke in the bathroom while I do my hair, real breakfast prepared by someone other than me is one of my happiest indulgences.

Finally, I've decided to take another crack at the ice cream maker just as soon as I dig it out of whatever crate it ended up in, and I'm starting with Green Tea Ice Cream from Epicurious.com, hopefully reminiscent of the Haagen Daz green tea ice cream that my husband and I bought in little cups from a Tokyo convenience store on our honeymoon. My backup plan, should my homemade ice cream prove a soupy unappealing mess as it did in my previous attempts, is this Mocha-Caramel Sauce from Big Girls Small Kitchen served over a more reliable store-bought ice cream.

The kitchen should be done in a week or two, though I really can't predict when I'll get around to unpacking the many crates off cooking implements stacked throughout our dining room. Until then, I'll continue compiling my list

Anything I should add?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Work: The empty hour

Just before the school year starts I make a flurry of preparations that feel as essential as taking one last deep gulp of air before diving underwater. The actual provisions made vary from year to year, but I usually realize in retrospect that they lean more toward the bizarre than the necessary.

A couple of Augusts ago I spent an afternoon making buttermilk biscuits from scratch, which I froze for the girls' breakfasts despite the fact that they had never before shown any interest in eating such a thing. Naturally, they refused to touch them. This year I loaded up on jumbo sized bottles of hair product. I also stocked up on ponytail holders for the girls, and, inexplicably, little plastic barrettes, which I have never used or wished to use in their hair before last week.

After the first week of school, it is clear to me that my preparations have once again been misguided. If this week is any indication, I will actually have ample time to buy shampoo. In fact, since Little E's pick-up time at her new daycare is an hour later than it was at her old one, I am left with 75 vacant minutes between work and pick-up. It feels like enough time to concoct my own shampoo from scratch or braid my head up in corn rows.

I should be happy, but I am conflicted about this. Maybe it's because I overheard a co-worker who is also teaching part-time this year explaining that since her children, younger than mine, didn't really need her at home her reduced schedule was really a selfish decision that benefited only her. Maybe it's because everyday last week when I came home, the men who are working on our kitchen smiled and said hello in such a way that the subtext was unmistakable: Why the hell aren't you at work, lady?

When I worked full-time I often felt overwhelmed and deficient in my duties both at work and at home, but I had the solace of martyrdom. I may not have been able to make it to the Hundredth Day of School party in Big E's kindergarten class, I may have had to sneak out of the faculty meeting if it ran too close to bus drop off time, but I knew for sure that I wasn't wasting more than a few minutes a day on myself. Last year I started working part-time and only occasionally felt overwhelmed or deficient, but still I picked up Little E 15 minutes after I got out of work. The pace of my days may have been more comfortable, but there was still little time not earmarked for work or family.

I know could spend my extra hour planning and grading at work, but that would make my salary reduction seem a waste. I suppose I could go to the gym or sit in a Starbucks with my laptop, but doing either of those things in the middle of the day would feel too indulgent. I could stay home and catch up on daytime TV, but surely the kitchen guys wouldn't appreciate that. For now, I'm making sure that we have a healthy store of toothpaste and toilet paper and hoping that with the second week of school will come a clearer purpose for my vacant hour.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dream: The growing season

I had really high expectations for this summer.  I wanted it to be just like the exultant summer of 2010: the days all sand and salt water and the nights starry skies and ice cream. This summer we went to the beach a lot, we went out for ice cream regularly, and still it wasn't the same.

I blamed myself for this. Who complains about having over two solid months off to lie on the beach and gorge on ice cream? Apparently I do, and so clearly I deserve a large chunk of the blame.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I also blamed my kids at times, because whereas they skipped hand in hand through last summer, they have spent much of this summer at odds with each other. Just the other day Big E came to me exasperated and reported that Little E was "breathing down her neck". As I tried to patiently explain to her how much her little sister looks up to her and loves to spend time with her despite how intrusive it might feel at times, Little E came in and began to actually pant heavily and noisily on Big E's neck, which is apparently what she had been doing all along. If not the kids themselves, their newly minted sibling rivalry deserves a bit of the blame.

I blamed last year's part-time schedule, too. The school year that preceded 2010's summer included some of the actual worst days of my life. In contrast to that, the summer felt more than fun and relaxing; it felt triumphant. This past school year, I spent my mornings teaching students who were usually interesting and almost always entertaining, and I spent my afternoons focusing on my family in a way that satisfied me and smoothed over a lot of the guilt I've felt since I first put Big E in daycare seven years ago. I didn't need the time off half as much this summer as I did last summer, and thus I didn't enjoy it as much. So, I blame part-time, though not so much that I'm not happy to do it again this year.

The biggest culprit, though, didn't reveal itself to me fully until a week ago in the lunchbox aisle at Target. It was there that I had to gently talk Big E out of choosing the same doggy-shaped lunch bag as Little E. I told her that I was afraid she might grow out of it and change her mind about it once it was too late to get another. What I really meant was that much as I would love it if she could carry a dog-shaped lunch bag for the rest of her school days, much as I swear to one day fulfill the request she made a few years ago that I live in her dorm room when it's time for her to go away to college, I cannot stand the thought of the other second-graders laughing at her too young lunch bag. She ended up settling on a pink splash-painted number that she seems happy with, but I'm still hating myself for pushing her, even in a small way, to grow up any faster than she wants to.

I realized that it is all the growing up I saw this summer that has really kept it from measuring up to last summer. This summer I reluctantly packed up Little E's toddler bed, I nervously sent Big E on a five-day trip to Michigan with my parents, and I bravely fought back tears and the urge to vomit when I brought both girls in for their very first haircuts and watched the "stylist" at the overpriced kiddy haircutting place lop off three inches of sun-bleached baby curls that I'd been twirling through my fingers since Big E was a nursing infant.

They have to grow up, I know that. I need to accept it, if only to avoid spoiling any more perfectly good vacation time. Still, next week when school starts up again that lunchbag is going to get me. And the hair. I may be mourning the hair until next summer.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eat: Cookin' it old school

Last month we spent almost a week in my grandmother's Florida condominium.  She and most of her snowbird neighbors had flown north for the summer, but there were still enough retirees around to give us a little preview of what our golden years could look like. My husband and I took to it pretty well, I think.  He slowed his already glacial walking pace down to the point where octagenarians were hustling past him in parking lots, and I made these Ranch Oyster Crackers.

These no-cook crackers are the sort of  low-effort thing that I'm guessing one makes for 5 o'clock cocktails in my grandmother's palm-shaded, golf course-adjacent complex. I found the recipe in her old school handwriting waiting for me in her pantry during our July stay along with a note proclaiming their deliciousness and a bag of the necessary ingredients. I made it one night while we were there, and she was right: these crackers really are pretty tasty.

Right now I'm in the midst of furious preparations for a school year that is starting far too early and my kitchen is torn to the studs (which, as it turns out were all wrong and needed reconfiguring to keep the second floor from falling into the basement). Amidst chaos, this recipe, simple and redolent of the all-play and no-work bliss of retirement for which I think I'll be well-suited, is about all I can manage.

Nan's Oyster Crackers

1 bag of oyster crackers
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 of a packet of powdered ranch dressing mix
1/2 teaspoon of dill weed
1/2 teaspoon of lemon pepper (black pepper and a bit of lemon zest could work)

Pour the oyster crackers into a large bowl.

Mix the oil, dressing mix, dill weed and lemon pepper right in the measuring cup.

Pour the oil mixture over the crackers and stir to coat evenly.

Let the crackers sit for an hour, giving it a stir every 15 minutes.

Enjoy with your 5 o'clock cocktail of choice. Or maybe make it 4:30 --you don't want to miss the early bird specials.