Thursday, December 23, 2010

Eat: Broccoli even my dog can enjoy

Around Thanksgiving, I wrote about my dog's favorite Brussels Sprouts.  I was pretty amazed that a dog whose diet consists mainly of raw beef could be enticed by a Brussels Sprout.  I am even more in awe, though, of her love of this broccoli recipe, which, unlike the other dish, includes no meat at all. 

This Oven Roasted Broccoli recipe by Alton Brown is quick enough for a weeknight and tasty enough even for those of us who are not broccoli fans.  What I love about it is the texture; while broccoli is so often served as an oversteamed pile of mush, this is crisp and really flavorful.  The stems are truly a revelation.  I always thought that stems served only as a cost cutting measure in school cafeterias, augmenting a pile of soggy florets; here, though, they add great texture and with the salt and garlic are almost chip-like.

The dog agrees.  If only I could get the kids on board.

Ingredients    

1 head of broccoli

1/3 cup of panko

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper  (A pinch of red pepper flakes might be nice here, but I don't think it would sit well with the dog.)

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese


Preheat the oven to 425.

While the oven heats, chop the broccoli.  Start with the stem, slicing it into thin rounds and then break down the top into bite-sized florets.

Chop the garlic into very small pieces.  The cook time is short, so you want to make sure that it is small enough to cook through to avoid a raw garlic taste.

Once you've chopped the broccoli and garlic, put it in a large bowl and toss it with the oil, salt and pepper.

Next, pour the panko into a 9x12 cake pan and brown it in the oven.  This step wil probably take two minutes.  Be attentive, as it burns quickly.

Once the panko is browned,  pour it from the pan into the bowl with the broccoli, toss it around and reurn the whole mixture back to the panRoast it in the oven for 10 minutes.

While the broccoli is roasting, wipe the bowl clean and add the grated cheese.  Save yourself some dishes by grating the cheese directly into the bowl.

After 10 minutes of roasting, return the broccoli to the bowl and toss it with the cheese.  If you wish, grate a little additional cheese over the top and serve immediately.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Play: The turd or the treasure

Until last week, I had only been to one water park in my life. From that one day I have two very vivid mental snapshots: one of a fly-infested wound, the other of a lone piece of excrement lying poolside.  And so it surprised even me when the grand gesture that I proposed to alleviate my birthday party guilt was an overnight trip to a local indoor water park to celebrate Little E turning four.

Let me first explain my previous water park experience.  It was Water Country USA, during a family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia the summer before ninth grade.  As was the case with most of that vacation (and most of being 13 in general), I enjoyed it but chose to focus on its least enjoyable aspects. 

My most indelible memories, besides those of the water park, are miserably posing for photos with my head and arms in stocks in Colonial Williamsburg, watching a mulleted couple pass cigarette smoke mouth-to-mouth as they made out in a roller coaster line at Busch Gardens, and leaving much of the skin from my left knee on the sidewalk of my cousins' suburban Jersey neighborhood after tripping during a jog.

The last of these resulted in the gaping wound that after a day of soaking in chlorine attracted a swarm of tiny flies, many of whom became stuck.  I discovered the insects adhered to my flesh only after I spotted a piece of feces abandoned by the edge of the obstacle course pool. 

I still have a scar on my leg from the festering scrape that attracted the flies, but it is that second thing that has really haunted me.  When I told my mother about it at the time, she brushed it off, saying that it had probably been inadvertently dropped from a sagging diaper.  I maintain to this day that it was far too large, perfectly formed, and, well, mature for that to have been the case, and its origins confound me. 

With this close in mind, I stepped into the water park on Thursday night.  As it turned out there were no skinned knees, no flies and, best of all, nary a bowel movement in sight.  And just when it seemed I'd been all wrong about water parks, an enormous bucket perched atop the structure where we stood dumped a torrent of water upon us that nearly swept Little E away.  I now had a new image to add to my previous collection: terrified child, wrapped shivering in a towel and refusing to budge from her lounge chair.

I was tempted to revert to my 13-year-old self, as I often do.  But I realized I had a choice:  I could choose to focus on the bucket-dumping disaster or the fact that I was lounging on a chaise in 80 degree heat on a December night; I could see the turd or the treasure.

I'm proud to say that --at least this time-- I made the right choice.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Work: Looking a gift horse in the mouth

My students have been really nice to me lately, and their benevolence concerns me.

I've experienced this before.  Years ago, when I returned to work still shaken after travelling to my grandmother's funeral, one student quietly spent an entire class period organizing and arranging every messy, overstuffed cabinet and shelf in my classroom.  In the last swollen, lumbering days of both of my pregnancies, an immediate hush would spread over the room any time I hoisted myself from my chair.  If anyone failed to quiet quickty enough, I could count on someone to come through with an angry hiss, "The baby!"  And of course, there was last year when among the various kind gestures from my students, there were countless back pats and shoulder squeezes.

In my experience, my students' solicitousness is directly proportionate to my own piteousness.  Only I'm not currently mourning, pregnant or fired.  Lately, I'm just a little...batty.  I'm trying to keep up with new curriculum and mountains of grading at work; I'm mounting Big E's dog-themed birthday party complete with homemade puppy cake, dog bone cookies, and tableclothes handstamped with pawprint paths; I'm replicating the same party for Little E this weekend --with the addition of the in-laws and a grilled cheese-themed dinner; I'm shopping for Christmas; I'm writing and losing lists; I'm trying not to think about the untouched stack of Christmas cards that must be addressed; and I'm kind of losing my head. 

The messy collision of work, birthdays and Christmas has me feeling frantic.  I find myself speaking at a pace my seventh grade English teacher once compared to a runaway train.  I am running down hallways and across parking lots, and --because as I am busy lately, I am vain always-- my rapid little high-heeled steps only make me look all the more deranged.

Recently, a student in my senior class cocked her head at me as I fumbled for a pen just before I started class.  "Are you...okay?" she asked, prompting me to launch into a rapid-fire recount of the previous evening's cookie-baking and tablecloth-stamping.  She has gently asked me the same question every day since. 

On Monday, after flying through Act II, scene i of Othello with a class of sophomores, I stopped for a breath and somehow managed to knock over my entire bag full of papers.  I waved off the students who rushed up to help and instead proceeded to tell, from my hands and knees (and like a runaway train), the story of how the dog had gotten into the birthday party trash, then my husband had set the alarm clock wrong, then he stepped in dog vomit, then he walked the dog vomit around the carpet... Since then they have eerily quiet and disconcertingly polite.

This year is supposed to be about equilibrium, but lately I feel like I'm hustling through life trying to balance a heavy tray cluttered with brimming glasses, overcompensating with every attempt and making a mess of everything.  I'm just hoping 2011 brings steadier hands ...and a lighter tray.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dream: For my girls, on the close of another year

I was raised without religion and as a result, my knowledge of The Bible is basic at best. Yet at this time of year I reflect on my cobbled understanding of the Christmas story, and I feel a rush of recognition; though I'm pretty sure this is sacrilegious, I find communion in the story of a woman who, in the dark stillness of a December night, experiences a miracle of birth and light. 

It happened to me, too.  Twice.

Big E emerged into the December darkness to make me a mother seven years ago.  I labored for 24 hours, battered by the pain but unrelenting in my determination to have a drug-free birth.  In the last late night hours before Big E was born, I was delirious with pain and fatigue, moaning to the midwife, over and over like a mantra, "I'm dying; you're killing me."

When my husband and I headed to the hospital through a cold, dark December night four years ago, I thought they'd probably send us home.  Though the contractions were coming a minute apart, they were nowhere near as crushing as I remembered from Big E's birth.  No longer as rigid in my convictions, I was open to an epidural this time around, but the opportunity never presented itself.  Little E was born 45 minutes after we arrived at the hospital, to the sound of the Christmas carols our nurse had switched on in the birthing room.

Their personalities often seem as polar as the circumstances of their births.  Big E, on turning seven, has graduated from little kid status to just plain kid and scolds her sister for talking too loudly while she's trying to read, which she does almost ceaselessly.  Little E, now just about four, still hangs on my leg to be carried.  When I tell her she's too big, she pouts that she's just a little baby and I give in, wishing she were right, still loving her clinging presence on my hip.  While good girl Big E stands rod straight and loudly enunciates a line from the Daisy Scout Promise to the crowd at her investiture ceremony, comedienne Little E, slumped on my lap, slaps her forehead and moans, "Oh brother, this is taking forever," to the amused agreement of the parents around us.

I never could have known seven years ago what my children would be to me.  How could I have realized they would render me at once so immune and so vulnerable?  Their existence blunts the stings and throbs of my daily life, yet even the tiniest harms they encounter sear my heart.  They are my beacon, the beam that guides me, that filtered through the gray haze of hormones and sleep deprivation after Big E's birth and burned through the dusky gloom of my work troubles last year.  If they are okay, my world is okay; thus, I must always make my world okay so that they will be, too.

I cry nearly every time I have to clear their drawers of outgrown clothes, reminiscing over every chocolate stained T-shirt and threadbare pair of jeans, and yet I thrill at every new stage, every little skill mastered, every small step taken.  I hate that we have moved through another year, but I would never want to miss knowing the women they will become.

And bittersweet as it is to mark a year gone, I know that as long as my girls are anywhere in this world there will be light in mine.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Eat: Peppermint Bark

I recently volunteered to contribute to my very first PTA bake sale.  I planned on baking some cookies and reveling in the satisfaction of finally being a full-fledged grown-up.  Then the bake sale coordinator e-mailed to thank me in advance for my donation of baked good and something she called "candy treats."  And so, because I am not quite a full-fledged grown-up, I panicked.

Candy involves thermometers and, as far as I know, a whole lot of mystery, and yet, I didn't want to fall short of proving myself a responsible community member and sufficiently devoted mother.  So, I did some research and came up with a "candy treat" that is suitably festive, but requires no thermometer and less effort than a pan of brownies: Peppermint Bark.

This recipe is so easy that, despite my lifelong aversion to candy canes, I've already made it twice.  Little E and my husband like the white chocolate and Big E and --much to my surprise-- I like the dark.  It is very reminiscent of a Thin Mint, the only minty food worth eating.

Peppermint Bark

1 12 oz. bag of white chocolate chips
1 12 oz. bag dark chocolate chips (60% cocoa Ghiradelli chips worked well)
12 candy canes


Line two  9x12 pans with foil.

Unwrap the candy canes and put them all in a large zip top bag.  Place the bag on a cutting board and then use a mallet or rolling pin to smash them into pieces.  This is very satisfying, particularly at this time of year.  You don't want the pieces too large, but you also don't want to turn them all to dust.  Stop when the largest pieces are no longer than they are wide.

Put a colander over a bowl and in the crushed candy canes, stirring and shaking so that only the larger pieces remain in the colander and all of the smaller bits and dust is in the bowl.

Melt one bag of chips by microwaving for a minute, stirring, then microwaving in 30-second intervals, stirring after each, until the chocolate is smooth.  The white chocolate will need more aggressive stirring than the dark, as its consistency tends to be on the chalky side.

Once the chocolate is melted, stir in half of the small candy cane bits and dust from the bowl, then pour and spread the chocolate into the lined pan.  Sprinkle half of the bigger chunks from the colander over the melted chocolate, lightly pressing them in so they are firmly affixed.

Repeat with the other bag of chips.  Refrigerate both until solid, about 45 minutes. 

Finally, remove them from the refrigerator, peel the hardened chocolate from the foil  break into pieces.  I made mine roughly 2"x2", which seemed a reasonable serving size.

The simple preparation made them a good Christmas "cooking" project to do with the kids on a weekday afternoon, and packaged in little cellophane bags, they made a passable "candy treat" for the bake sale.  And panic-free.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Play: You know you're a mother when...

You know you're a mother when even a birthday party comes wrapped in guilt.

Big E's first real party, when she turned 3, was a direct result of my guilt about the baby that was about to shatter her attention-soaked little world.  She had some friends over to do craft projects, eat pizza, ransack our home and force their hovering parent to make awkward introductions and small talk.  This was nice and all, but it couldn't quite offset having to share a bedroom, so she we threw her another party with the family.  Then we sent her to school with cupakes.  Then we had a smaller, more intimate party for the three of us.  And I still felt guilty.

By the time her fourth birthday rolled around, I realized that all that baby guilt was unnecessary.  Big E had taken easily to big sisterhood and was proud to have Little E at her party, held in the gymnastics center at the local Y.  Kids bounced on the trampoline, parents walked the balance beam, and I very nearly escaped any feelings of guilt.  I would have called the whole thing a success had it not been for the one little boy who clung to his mother's leg and covered his ears at every loud noise.  I felt bad for the boy, but, having been there myself at many a party, I felt worse for his mother.  And so I fretted for days about whether I'd appropriately communicated my sympathy.

The year she turned five was rough.  Her closest friends had left daycare for kindergarten, but, because of her December birthday, Big E was still there and not too happy about it.  Determined to make sure that she had high attendance at her party, I invited all of the girls in her class and all of her old friends to a party at Build-a-Bear, followed by a restaurant lunch.  It was great, until, as I led a line of teddy bear-toting little girls through the mall, I remembered that not only were there starving children in Africa, but possibly within spitting distance of the mall.  And my daughter was dressed in a tiara and tutu.

Last year's pool party at the Y was fine, and still I woke at 2 a.m. consumed with guilt.  Despite spending the rest of my pre-work sleeping time replaying every minute of the party, I couldn't pinpoint the source of my self-reproach.  Apparently, at that point it was simply habit.

This year Big E has asked to have her party at home.  There will be a craft, pizza and a movie.  The only extravagance, assuming I can pull it off, will be the from-scratch cake decorated to look like a puppy.  I should feel okay about this year's party; I'm fulfilling her wishes while maintaining a reasonable scale. 

My guilt this year comes from doing for one child what I'm not doing for the other. I am not having a full-blown party for Little E.  There are various reasons for this, chief among them the fact that I just don't think she would enjoy it.  Instead, we'll spend the night at a local hotel with an indoor water park and have a family party, where both sets of grandparents can make awkward small talk and I will again attempt the puppy cake.  So as not to deny her the spotlight that I suspect would ruin a party for her, I'm also going to send her to school with goody bags and cake.

I think I'm doing the right thing, and yet I worry that Little E will see it as inequity and that it may breed resentment for her sister, become fodder for a therapy session down the road, or, worse, make her feel less loved.  Here's the truth:  I love them both to a degree so unmeasureable as to make it impossible to compare my love for one to that for the other, yet I love them as individuals.

And I really hope that I'm right to treat them as the individuals that I know them to be.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Work: On sacrifices and sensitivity

My part-time schedule has made me the Boo Radley of the English Department.

I'm a phantom, slipping out quietly while all of those around me go about their middle of the day business, no longer in meetings where I would have been vital last year, not even copied onto e-mails I might have been sending last year.  Stripped of my own classroom due to my part-time status, I spend prep periods in the windowless department office where the motion-sensored lights shut off so frequently that I've mostly given up trying to keep them on and have learned to make due with the one lonely fluorescent panel that acknowledges me.  Yesterday a co-worker ran into my cave to use the crusty office microwave; she startled when the lights went up and she saw me hunched over a pile of essays in the corner, cringing  from the sudden glare.  Boo.

In the classroom, though, I'm still there.  In fact, I'm feeling better than ever about my teaching because I'm not hassled by building politics or harried by five classes worth of planning and grading.  This makes it easier to live with the fact that I'm feeling vaporized in every other aspect of my career.  The decision to go part-time was not made in the interest of advancement; it was made in the interest of my family and my sanity.

My family is happy with the change.  And yet my sanity is tested.

My latest grievance is with world's lack of consideration for working parents.  I've long resented the lack of story hours and organized parent-child activities outside of working hours, and when Big E started school the stakes grew.  She may not have known that they were missing out on a mommy and me music class, but it's hard not to notice that all the other kids had a mother to wave to at the school Halloween Parade. 

The tipping point, though, came recently.  After I expressed some concern about Little E's lack of coloring skills and her teachers seconded it, I set out to address the issue.  This meant that, after some calling around and a fruitless doctor's appointment, I actually needed to speak with someone in the building where I work.

To admit that there might be any obstacle --no matter how small-- between my sweet daughter and whatever she might possibly want out of the world was excruciating, so the conversation would have been difficult no matter what.  That she spent most of our time together reading from a list of pre-schools attended by current kindergartners and suggesting that though she wasn't terribly familiar with any of them they would all be good alternatives to Little E's current school, which she said diplomatically, was not one they typically recommended, did not help. 

The common denominator in the list of acceptable schools?  They were all part-time programs whose exorbitant rates and unaccommodating hours made them impossible for our family.  I could have pointed out her insensitivity or the fact that Big E spent four years in the same program and is now the strongest reader in her class, instead I added this to the sagging sack of guilt I'd been carrying around since I'd spoken to Little E's teachers.  Drank Diet Coke while pregnant, once accidentally went through the car wash with her window slightly open, sent her to daycare for two and a half years...

My frustration over this issue is probably compounded by my concerns about Little E.  But if someone who works less than five hours a day feels the pinch, what about someone who works ten?

If only some noble-hearted Atticus Finch type could take up the cause...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dream: My moment of delayed gratitude

We hosted my parents and brother for Thanksgiving dinner this year.  When we sat down to eat, for some reason everyone looked to me to share words of gratitude.  Exhausted by an already long day and fuming over a just-discovered grease stain on my new shirt, I sighed and said that clearly we all knew we had a lot to be thankful for, and so we really didn't need to make a big thing of and let the food get cold.  Amen.

Lately I've been wading through a muck of various frustrations, stressors and grievances and feeling weighted by the darkness of shortening days.  Even worse in this season of holiday meals, Christmas card photos, and both girls' birthdays, I find myself feeling entitled to perfection, though it consistently eludes me.

This sense of entitlement comes from my youth, when the golden hand of perfection seemed always to alight on me when I needed it most.  My everyday was decidedly imperfect.  I chewed my nails and could never tame my frizzy hair.  No matter how good my outfit looked in my bedroom mirror, it generally turned on me as soon as I left the house, and the right thing to say or, often, anything to say escaped me in most situations.  Yet my team always won the big game, my hair was always perfect for the dance and my admissions essay got me into my first choice college.  I came to count on perfection at the opportune moment.

My gilded age came to an end in college.  I no longer had a team, I came to realize that even for a big night I could only count on looking passable, and that the gleaming success promised by my first choice school never materialized.  It was a nice run while it lasted, and I don't usually miss it too much. 

There hasn't been a big game in nearly 20 years, and there's no big dance coming up, just a PTA bake sale.  It's tough to feel too terrible about your outfit when you work in education; the fashion bar is set fairly low.  I still bite my nails, but I've developed some minimal small talk to pull out as necessary and I've gotten a handle on my hair.  Yet there are times, particularly around this season of celebration and preparation, that I feel I deserve an occasional glittery touch of that magic from my youth, that at the very least I should be spared that splotch of turkey grease on the only vaguely glamorous top I own.

But on Friday night, my moment of delayed gratitude came to me.  As we ate a dinner of leftovers for my husband and me and nutritionally-bankrupt Scooby Doo mac and cheese for the girls, I felt it.  There I sat with the boy I'd met when I still had frizzy hair and too short jeans and somehow we'd come to be grown-ups sitting in our wildly imperfect house with two full-fledged people that we'd made all by ourselves --people who, though they laughed with their mouths full and couldn't be convinced to wear pants to the table, will always be perfect to me, no matter anyone else's assessment.  And I felt grateful to have made it there, even without the gilding.

This new attitude of acceptance and gratitude served me well the next day, when the perfection fairy clearly skipped our house on the morning of the big Christmas card photo shoot.  It was, as you can see, perfectly typical.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eat: Brussels Sprouts even my dog can enjoy

I don't know many people who consider Brussels Sprouts to be a favorite, which is why I am particularly fond of the Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lemon and Bacon from the December 2005 issue of Bon Appetit.  Not only is it my favorite vegetable side dish, but it is my husband's and, even more impressively, it is my dog's.

The dog is probably swayed by the delicious infusion of bacon, and I agree. Bacon improves anything, especially when it's brightened up with subtle lemon flavor.  That it's relatively painless to make is all the better.  I'll be roasting up a recipe of these tonight and re-heating them tomorrow while the turkey rests.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lemon and Bacon

1 1/2 pounds of small Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and halved the long way
1 1/4 cups diced raw bacon
1 lemon sliced in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise

Preheat the oven to 450.

Cook the sprouts in boiling water until crisp-tender (about 5 minutes)

Drain the sprouts and spread them on a rimmed baking sheet.

Toss them with bacon and lemon slices, the sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

Transfer to a bowl and serve, or transfer to an oven proof dish, refrigerate and serve teh next day.  While serving them immediately is preferable, if oven space is at a premium, you can cook ahead and re-heat in the oven as I'm doing without losing much in the way of flavor or texture.  They even fare well in the microwave, though the dog prefers them lukewarm.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Play: Sweet Escape

For the past couple of years my husband and I have foregone birthday gifts for each other in favor of an adults only overnight in Boston the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  This year it nearly didn't happen. 

As we were preparing to go, in the midst of various other crises and worries, our vintage 70s Pepto Bismol-pink bathtub --our only bathtub-- simply stopped draining.  We had a tub full of standing water,  fists balled in frustration, and a sea of  I told you so's (because I really did tell him). It was decided...er, shouted, that there was really no point in going.  But thanks to the binding nature of a bid on Priceline.com, we tabled our discussion and headed into the city.  I'm glad we did, because if we hadn't I would have missed a lot:

I showered in a new white tub that drained effortlessly.

I slept in a pristinely made bed that hadn't been (to my knowledge) stomped by little feet.

I wore clothing that begged to be ruined by grubby little hands and faces.

I took a long walk through the city at night, without having to carry a tired, squirmy little body.

I ate dinner, though just burgers and beer, at the terribly urbane hour of 7:30.


I followed an early morning jog along the waterfront with a proper breakfast, rather than scarfing down a granola bar in the bathroom as I dry my hair.


It is amazing how quickly the frustration, I told you so's and shouting simply vaporized under these conditions, and just how much I missed those early family dinners, little feet, grubby hands and mouths, and squirmy bodies (but not the granola bars) after just a night away from them.  So it occurred to me, somewhere between the beers and the benedict, that the tub would likely not be the last or biggest of our problems and that neither the drain nor the family would be served by the swirling sea of ire we'd unleashed onto a problem that, it turns out, required only a $2 jug of white vinegar

Yup, that's right.  We returned Sunday afternoon to find that the vinegar that I'd dumped down the drain in desperation had worked overnight; the water flows down with nary a puddle.  Call it a gift from the universe or call it a Thanksgiving miracle: I am very grateful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Work: Casual Wednesdays

Last year, my principal made (and then rescinded) the decision to cut me from my department.  I saw this coming and so I was able to make some preparations prior to my fateful trip to his office.  I saw no point in bringing my folder full of positive performance reviews.  Clearly he had considered these, right?  Instead I focused on my wardrobe.

I thought a lot about what one wears to a firing --a suit? sweatpants?  I decided on a black shirt dress with a side tie and a big full skirt.  This was a dose of private gallows humor, as I attributed much of my expendableness to the fact that I was the only mother among those of us who were without professional status (and thus fire-able); this dress, in a different color and covered up with a scallop-edged apron, reminded me of something Donna Reed might wear.  Also, I wore pointy-toed, spike-heeled red lizard-embossed pumps; I thought they handily summed up my bitter disapproval of the entire affair.

In the month between my firing and unfiring, I spent a lot of time strategizing about my wardrobe.  Truthfully, I had always put thought into my clothing.  The scrutiny of a hundred opinionated teenagers a day will do that to you.  In that month of being fired, though, wardrobe decisions felt like my only place of power.  I relied often on the red lizard pumps.  When a former student e-mailed his support, he said that a friend of his in one of my classes had mentioned my shoes.  "Classy," he wrote, "dig?"  Why, thank you.

This year, though, I find myself moving in the opposite direction with what have become regular casual Wednesdays, and I'm not sure what this means.  By the middle of each week, I find myself unable resist the lure of denim.  Sure, I dress it up with cashmere sweaters and crisp blouses, and it's not like it's sweatpants. But it's certainly not a suit. 

It could be that after the drama of last year, I'm approaching work on my own terms.  Or, it may be that my new (and beloved) part-time schedule has shrunken work down to being just a portion of my day and not the day itself.  It's also possible that a tiny piece of me is daring the higher-ups to make something of it.

Insubordination by wardrobe.  Now that's a cause for dismissal I could be proud of.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dream: Sunshine State of Mind

For reasons I don't fully understand, my husband loves infomercials and home shopping shows.  He has never purchased anything from television but will actually stay up at night to watch a pseudo-documentary on Sounds of the Seventies.  His favorite is the Quacker Factory lady.

If you are unacquainted with her, she is an older lady who seems to have developed a sizeable following hawking bedazzled t-shirts and elastic waist pants.  (Have a look here.)  My husband finds her and her empire hilarious, but for a long time I dismissed her as just another lunatic loudmouth in a whimsical sweater.  Until one day last summer when I learned that she is actually a kindred spirit.

You see, I learned that, like me, Quacker Factory Lady loves palm trees, and, like me, she promised herself that she would one day live in a place where they could grow in her yard.  Sadly, our paths diverge at the point where she actually made this happen for herself, while I am left planning vacations in Orlando and Orange County and dreaming of teaching English in Bali.

My love of palm trees is not so much about the tree itself as it is about what it represents to me.  Palm trees are many things: hot sand, warm breezes, umbrella drinks. Yet, I know that most people with palm trees in their yards must actually go to work, shop for groceries, mop floors, oversee homework, and on and on.  And this doesn't matter, because palm trees are to me, above all, about sun.  They are the anti-winter.

I recently reconnected with a high school friend on Facebook and learned that she had settled in Florida.  She told me that she is a stay-at-home mom and there was mention of a nanny and a black tie gala, photographic evidence of gleaming marble countertops and a backyard pool.  It was not these things that stoked my envy.  It was her declaration that when the temperature dips below 70 they all put on jackets.  This is in stark contrast to me.  Where they have the luxury of bundling up at the hint of a chill, I must persevere and so I've developed a defiantly thick skin. 

The day the clocks fell back was my husband's last soccer game of the season.  It was gray and bitterly cold, and yet I loaded the kids in the car and headed to the game; my only concessions to the chill were some hastily packed hats and mittens and a stop for hot chocolate.  The players on the sidelines bobbed up and down, blew puffs of steam into their cupped hands for warmth, and snuck suspicious glances at the girls and me.  Surely, we looked insane: I wore a vest rather than a full coat and Big E, following my lead, abandoned her jacket after a few minutes.  And as we sat there and I willed the slate gray sky to azure and the biting wind to a balmy breeze, I convinced the girls that we should move to Florida.

By the awkwardness of my husband's squirm when I later told him of my plan, I'm guessing I needn't call the realtor.  But maybe this Christmas he'll get me a little consolation prize...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eat: Pumpkin Muffins, outside the box

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but ever since I first put Big E into daycare over six years ago, I have seen it more as the most guilt-inducing. 

It is the meal that starts the day and that I, as someone whose workday is in full swing at 7:30 a.m., have had to ask others to feed to my children.  Eating lunch away from home?  That's standard.  We all do that.  But what kind of mother can't feed her child breakfast?  A mother like me, the kind who feels inordinately guilty about it, who thinks that every short stack her kids are deprived of will someday equal an hour on the therapist's couch.

I assuaged my guilt during my extra-large maternity leave after Little E was born.  There was fruit and pancakes and whole-wheat waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse --and that was just on the weekdays.  When  I returned to work I tried to keep this up, to an extent, with homemade muffins that the girls could eat at daycare, but I quickly found that the strife caused by trying to whip up breakfast pastries from scratch acted in opposition to the calm. happy home these muffins were supposed to represent. 

I fell to Pillsbury's lure and began buying a box of pumpkin muffin mix and a bag of Hershey's mini-morsels every week to satisfy Big E's love of pumpkin and chocolate.  But a few weeks ago, there was a pre-Halloween run on pumpkin muffin mix and it occurred to me that now that I'm working part-time I could get back in the breakfast game --at least part way.

I found this pumpkin muffin recipe from the November 2006 issue of Gourmet Magazine on a blog named, appropriately enough, Muffin Top and followed it with the addition of the beloved mini-morsels.

INGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin

1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp pumpkin-pie spice (a combo of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and allspice)
1 1/4 cups plus 1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon

6 ounces of mini chocolate chips (my addition)

Equipment: 12 foil or paper muffin liners; a muffin pan with 12 (1/2-cup) muffin cups

DIRECTIONS:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350F. Put liners in muffin cups.


Whisk together flour and baking powder in a small bowl.

Whisk together pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin-pie spice, 1 1/4 cups sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl until smooth, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Gently stir in chocolate chips.

Stir together cinnamon and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in another bowl.

Divide batter among muffin cups (each should be about 3/4 full), then spinkle tops with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake until puffed and golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then transfer muffins from pan to rack and cool to warm or room temperature.

Not only were these almost as easy to make as the mix muffins, they had a delicious cinnamony-sweet topping.  The only problem: My grocery store considers canned pumpkin a seasonal item, but the reduction in breakfast-related guilt makes it worth stocking up.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Play: Share and share alike

Last weekend, I took the girls out for doughnuts before we went to watch my husband play soccer.  As usual they ordered different flavors and then coveted each others', while each jealously guarded her own.  They traded stingy "bites" pinched off between fingernails and then, just after Big E had popped the last of her chocolate frosted into her mouth, Little E requested one last bite.

Big E told her that it was gone but offered her what was left in her mouth, which Little E happily accepted...and enjoyed.  I was disgusted, mortified and, I must admit, touched.

The previous weekend I had focused on giving each girl solo time, and while I enjoyed it, I also chastised myself a fair amount for not doing it frequently enough and then fretted over any irreversible long term damage I had caused them by treating them so often as a package deal.  And yet, here they were willing to cheerfully (and hopefully unnoticed by any other Dunkin' Donuts patrons) share breakfast pastry and saliva.  I chose to see this in the happiest possible light: they really do love each other, so I must have done something right.

This is something that I've actually been noticing a lot recently.  The day before the doughnut incident, I listened to Little E wake up Big E at the crack of dawn by chanting her name over and over and shouting (albeit a bit prematurely), "Wake up, wake up, it's Halloween! Wake up!  Wake up! I need you!"  They sing along together to Phantom Planet as we drive down the highway.  They entertain each other at soccer games with complicated games of pretend.  They have always been sisters, but, to my delight, they are also friends.

I hope that this continues, that even as they get older and busier and collect more friends from outside of the family that they will still be each others' companions.  I hope that they can always play as well together as they do now, that as they grow older they will be for each other the unconditional, truly forever best friend I always imaged a sister would be.

And now that I've come to this heartwarming realization, I hope that I never see Little E eat someone else's pre-masticated food ever again. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Work: Flight Plans

The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.

Mark Twain said this.  I was introduced to it on an MCAS practice test that I gave my students in my first year of teaching in an urban high school.  I stood in my windowless classroom full of teens, some struggling with poverty others with adjusting to the climate and language of a new country, trying to convince them of the relevance of not only Twain's aphorism but also of this test that would decide their academic fate. I wondered where this experience fell on the range of vacations.  Was this Hawaii or was I in Beirut?

 I alternately, and at times simultaneously, loved and hated what I was doing that year, but I always knew that it was no vacation.  Ten years later, work is no longer the wild ride that it once was.  I have grown more comfortable with my abilities and sharpened my instincts in the classroom.  I had children of my own and recalibrated my priorities.  My students have rewarded me much more often than they've punished me  And still, it is a vocation and never a vacation.

There are things that I love about my job: the students, the chance to read The Catcher in the Rye  on endless loop, the fact that it helps to pay the mortgage.  There are other things that I don't like as much.  The mounds of grading come to mind, along with the general lack of official recognition of my efforts, which when coupled with my duties at home sometimes feel Herculean.  There is also the fact that I am an introvert who cringes at conflict, and I am working in a position that calls daily for hundreds of personal interactions, each fraught with potential for discord and misunderstanding.  I sometimes feel rubbed raw.

Maybe nothing can be a vacation once it is tied to a paycheck.  When I read The Catcher in the Rye, I tell my students to pretend that I am not giving it to them, that they just pulled it off the shelf on their own.  I know that obligation saps enjoyment.

And yet, especially lately, I believe there's more. I just don't know what it is. So I sit here in the terminal, hands folded in my lap, patiently awaiting my vacation flight.  Unfortunately, I am forgetting that I am not only tour director but the pilot, as well.   If I don't get out of my seat, the plane will never pull up to the gate.

I am thinking about drafting some flight plans.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dream: The baby season


For the past seven years, this time of year, when the nights grow chillier and the foliage is blunted from scorching to rusted, has brought my mind to the same place.  More than harvest or Halloween, these late days of autumn are, to me, the baby season.

 On Halloween, 2003 my husband and I sat on the stoop of the house where we had a tiny second-floor condo.  I had been pregnant with Big E since early that spring, but it had been an anxiety-ridden pregnancy full of scares and complications, and it wasn't until a neighbor asked that night about my due date that I allowed myself to realize that I was, indeed, a pregnant lady, that in a few weeks we would have a baby. 

Three years later, on the same night, Big E, as a fairy princess, and I, eight months pregnant, trick-or-treated around our new neighborhood where we had our own house and no longer shared a stoop.  The baby who would be Little E was due in mid-December, one day after Big E's third birthday, and I reminded myself that I really was a pregnant lady and that soon that squirmimg, kicking hump in my middle would be a swaddled baby who would grow into a tiny person like its sister.

When the baby season comes, I think of these Halloweens and of the two December nights when I struggled and pushed and screamed my girls into being.  And I think of the bubbly anticipation of all the nights between, of knowing what was coming, but not exactly, of knowing when it was coming, but not for sure.  I don't think about the skyrocketing blood pressure of both my pregnancies, those painfully urgent and undecipherable infant screams, the gray post-partum lows, the sad sibling lurking in the background.  I don't think about the days when I feel like I might drown in all of the tears and scowls, the no fairs, the why nots, the she always get everythings. 

I do think about doing it all again.  I think about the sleepy babies nursing and stroking my hair, about toothless smiles and little hands grabbing my fingers.  I think about the drawings that say I love Mom, about little sneakers skipping along next to mine, and about giggling girls burrowing into bed with us on weekend mornings.

Then I remember: our home and our cars are at capacity with two children.  If our finances are strained now, what would happen when we started a new round of daycare payments, not to mention adding a third college tuition?  And, above all,  we are happy and unspeakably lucky to have the healthy, hilarious, lovely girls that we do.  Would a third enhance this or throw it all into chaos? 

If I were to have maintained the clean symmetry that I achieved in spacing the girls nearly three years to the day, year folding neatly over year like a paper fan, I would have trick-or-treated with a baby on my hip this year.  While neither my husband nor I can slam the door on the possibility of one more, with each day we are watching it slowly close on its own.

Yet, every once in a while, especially now in the baby season,  I reach back and stay that door, if only for a while.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eat: $25,000 Roast Chicken?

When I opted to reduce my work schedule to part-time this year, much of the appeal lay in the domestic bliss I imagined I'd be able to achieve with my extra hours.  The house would be not only clean, but organized and surely I'd have time for those decorating projects I'd been putting off.  I would whip up delicious, from-scratch baked goods and tasty nutritious dinners.   All of this, I reasoned, would make part-time worth it.

My homemaking skills haven't quite earned back the missing 40 percent of my salary.  I may throw in an extra load of laundry here and there, but our playroom is still swathed in blue painter's tape and we've been eating a lot of sandwiches.  This chicken was my attempt to earn my keep, a taste of that elusive domestic bliss...but one that would, hopefully allow me time to help Big E with her homework, keep Little E from liberating every toy in the as yet unpainted playroom, and maybe make a little progress on the scarily thick folder of grading in my bag.

I used the  Best Roast Chicken with Garlic-Herb Butter recipe from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites, and found that it was pretty simple and didn't require a huge amount of active prep time.

for the garlic butter:
5 garlic cloves, whole
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1/4 teaspoon dried, crumbled
1 tablespoon chopped fresh time, or 1/4 teaspoon dried, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper

for the chicken and vegetables
One 3- to 4-pound chicken
4 medium onions quartered  (I only had one, but didn't feel that the finished product lacked for onions.)
11/2 pounds fingerling or new potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups dry red or white wine

First, make the garlic butter by preheating the oven to 350 and putting the garlic in a small ovenproof pan and covering it with the olive oil.  An 8-inch cake pan worked for me.  Roast it for about 15 minutes; it will get tender and sweet.  Remove them from the oven, let them cool for a few minutes.

In a small bowl mash together the butter and herbs, then season with salt and pepper. Chop or mash up the garlic and add it and any oil from the garlic roasting pan to the butter and mix well.

At this point you should move a rack to the lower third of the oven and preheat to 450.  Then, prepare the chicken by removing the bag of giblets and rinsing the bird inside and out with cold water.  I let it stand in a strainer in the sink for about 10 minutes to allow it to dry.  At this point you can put the vegetables in a bowl and toss them with the olive oil.

Now the fun part: cut off any excess fat near the flaps of the cavity.  Then wiggle your fingers beneath the skin to create a pocket between the breast meat and the skin; fill the pocket with half of the butter mixture and massage it into the breast meat.   I am no fan of raw chicken flesh and was moderately horrified about doing this, but I assure that it is ultimately worth those few minutes of horror (and several additional minutes of aggressive handwashing).

Rub the remaining butter over the skin of the rest of the chicken, then put the chicken into a roasting pan.  Surround it with the vegetables; if you have any leftover butter, melt it a little and drizzle it over them as I did.  Full disclosure: At this point I feel compelled to admit that I have some form of poultry dyslexia and, as I often do when cooking a bird, I put the chicken in upside down.  This wasn't actually a huge deal but did deprive us of tasty roasted breast skin, so beware.

Roast the chicken for 25 minutes, then pour half of the wine over the chicken and toss the vegetables so they'll brown easily.  Turn the oven down to 375 and roast the chicken for another 20 minutes; pour the rest of the wine over it and toss the vegetables again.  Roast for another 20 to 25 minutes or until the juices run clear.

Transfer the vegetables to a serving bowl and allow the chicken to rest for about 10 minutes.  After carving the chicken and putting it on a serving platter, do not forget to spoon the pan juices over the sliced meat.

So, was it $25,000 worth of domestic bliss?  Maybe more like $25, but it was tasty.  My family appreciated it, and I got to get in touch with my inner-June Cleaver, serving Sunday Dinner on a weeknight. 

Most importantly, it gave me hope: only $24, 975 worth of bliss to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Play: Flying Solo

My very first mental snapshot of Little E is from the second after her birth as I pulled her from the birthing tub.  In that very first instant of seeing my baby, I was focused not on her face --I didn't even notice that it was obscured by the birth membrane-- but on the spot between her legs where I was convinced I would see boy parts. 

We'd opted not to find out gender at the ultrasound, but I was convinced that I was having a boy and was almost as shocked to see a girl as I would have been if the technician had told us it was a boy back at 18 weeks. When I got over my astonishment, I realized that I had given Big E something I had never had but always wanted: a sister.

I grew up with a younger brother and my husband had two older sisters; this territory of same-sex sibling relations is somewhat unfamiliar to us.  We try hard to be conscious to avoid quagmires like unwarranted assumptions, unfair judgements, and unattractive hand-me-downs, but we aren't always vigilant about is making sure that they each get some solo time with us.  Dictated by time constraints or practicality, or as a result of our attempts at fairness, the girls tend to travel as a pack.

This weekend we took a tiny step toward giving the girls a little more solo time.  On Saturday, I took Big E to Starbuck's, inexplicably one of her favorite places, where we got hot chocolate and Chai and split a brownie and on Sunday, while Big E was at a friend's house, my husband and I took Little E to her favorite lunch spot, a grungy local diner.

No magical moments of bonding or spectacular strokes of insight sprung from these outings.  But I think that the solo time was worthwhile.  As much as I cherish the sturdy foundation that we as a family provide each other, I value the individuals, as well.  I'll continue to find opportunities to complement our family time with one-on-one time, so the girls can see how much they each mean to me --together and apart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Work: Running away from home

We first set foot in our home a little over five years ago.  We took a perfunctory tour and  surveyed the backyard for a few minutes, where our real estate agent pointed out the possibility of adding a pool, as he had, unprompted, at every showing.  Then we stood in the street conferring with our agent.

We leaned against our car in the blazing July sun and gazed at the house as we told him that we wanted to make an offer.  He, too, stared at the house with its swayback roofline, faded Christmas wreath on the front door, and mouldering pumpkin remains on the front stoop, and asked, "What makes youse guys want this one, of all the places we've looked at?"

Well, we explained, there was the location: five minutes from my new job, across the street from a library and playground, convenient to the highway and in viewing distance of a quaint New England church in which we would never set foot.  But, more importantly, there was the backyard, a large grassy expanse with two huge leafy trees.

He pursed his lips, squinted his eyes, nodded slightly and then threw up his hands and shrugged.  At the time I thought he was conceding our house-buying wisdom, I realize now that he was giving us the international sign for Well, it's your funeral. 

When you are living in a 712 square foot condo with an even smaller shared yard, you never underestimate the value of space.  And when you are sharing that condo not only with your spouse, but your active toddler and hyper-active Boston Terrier as well, you really covet outdoor space.  When you are in this position and yardowners complain to you about the hassle of mowing and the agony of leaf-raking, you feel angry and you absolutely know that you would relish these jobs, that the satisfaction of working your own land would have you happily raking, mowing and trimming every weekend.

Until that is, you actually own a backyard and you realize that you do not revel in its maintenance, but instead find yourself running away from home.  This happened to me last weekend, when at a critical juncture in the landscaping cycle (long grass meets falling leaves), I found myself not mowing or raking, though both are in critical need, but first soccer-cleat shopping with my husband and then crossing state lines to shop a "designer bag replica" flea market so shady that when Big E later developed an itchy scalp I was convinced that she'd picked up an exotic breed of head lice from my new "cashmere" scarf.  All to avoid the yard.

It is, perhaps, because my vision of adulthood is a product of too much television that I imagined that at adulthood I'd be issued a sturdy, symmetrical home with a self-tending lawn. That my reality has turned out so differently, with so many more cracks, leaks, rodents, and, yes, leaves, is hard to accept at times.  It is a lot more work than I had imagined.

I know that I need to come to terms with my burden and deal with the grass and leaves.  But maybe I'll just bulldoze it all and put in that pool.

(Tragic Update:  That itchy head?  It really was lice, and though I cannot comment on their exoticism they sure are proficient at multplying.  This is clearly punishment from the lawn gods for my lack of gratitude.  The irony is that the time I really and truly planned to spend cleaning up the yard this weekend will now be spent combing, laundering, vacuuming, boiling,and bagging. Sweet revenge for condo-dwelling yard coveters everywhere.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dream: Glass Cases

I am a much better curator of memories than I am a liver of moments.

I have been reminded of this a lot over the past few weeks.  I cross state lines to cheer on my college football team and even referenced the school in my daughters' middle names, and yet on the day I graduated I was so happy to leave that I swore I would never go back.  The other night I felt myself tearing up nostalgically at the movie Dumbo as Mrs. Jumbo lovingly inspected her new baby, but I spent Big E's babyhood reduced to a jiggling heap of frustration and anxiety.  This morning at school a group of exchange students from France arrived and I sentimentally recounted to my students my own sophomore year trip to Paris; it wasn't until I was in the parking lot that I remembered how my host family had sent me up to a cold, lonely bedroom to wait for hours before dinner.

Coincidentally, it was during those chilled Gallic hours that I first read (and then re-read) The Catcher in the Rye whose protagonist Holden fixates on the glass-cased dioramas at The American Museum of Natural History.  Fearful of change, he appreciates their static nature.  This is close to the opposite of my need for glass cases, for it is only after things have changed that I can look back fondly at the diorama of days gone by. 

It is not that I never gaze appreciatively on a sweet moment, it is just that my eye is drawn more often to the less dazzling details: the children are whining, the house is a mess, I have a backpack full of grading to do.  Later, in my mental exhibition, I will polish and position it all to its best advantage.  I will see only the golden sunny vacation, the fun-filled playdate, the weekend of lounging with the family. 

Really, that is what I am doing with this blog and probably why I have been enjoying it so much.  I can take an experience, say venting work frustrations on my husband or pouting on a family skating trip and imbue it with sage like observations.  I am no longer a shrew or a party-pooper, I am wise and reflective.  I am Doogie Howser, M.D., without the genius IQ and the bedside manner.

Here is where I should claim some plan to change this aspect of me.  But I don't really think I can do that; it's too deeply ingrained.  I will, however, try not to share my dark vision with those around me.  Beyond that, all I can do is appreciate the gift of an optimist's memory.  It is, after all, the memories that endure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eat: Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares

After Little E was born I took a super-sized maternity leave --almost 18 months.  During that time I did freelance work for a textbook publisher, vacuumed every other day, scrubbed the bathroom twice a week, baked frequently (and always from scratch), planned and executed nutritious weekly menus, created hand-sewn Halloween costumes, read novel after novel and explored every park in a 20-mile radius with Big E at my side and Little E tucked into the Baby Bjorn. 

I felt as if my life were actually capacious enough to contain not just what I absolutely needed to do, but what I wanted to do, as well.  My kids were happy. my toilet was clean and I was earning a paycheck to boot.

I first made these Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares from Martha Stewart during that time and consider them emblematic of my days as calm, competent, multi-tasking mommy.  Big E and I would whip up a batch while Little E napped and then I'd season the rest of the pumpkin puree with ground ginger and have gourmet baby food on standby.  Everything was under control in a way that it has not been since I returned to work.



Ingredients

Makes 24
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin puree
  • 1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pie spice, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  2. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium-high speed until smooth; beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in pumpkin puree (mixture may appear curdled). Reduce speed to low, and mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
  3. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until edges begin to pull away from sides of pan and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan.
  4. Lift cake from pan (using foil as an aid). Peel off foil, and use a serrated knife to cut into 24 squares.

Calm and competence may elude me, but at least I have the Pumpkin-Chocolate-Chip Squares.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Play: Pushing, not plodding

Although our plans for the long weekend included a sport a day (college football on Saturday, over-30 soccer Sunday and the Tufts 10K Monday), it was Friday night's dinner with my friend Carole that got me thinking about the value of sports.

Carole is many things --mother, blogger, career woman-- but not a sports enthusiast. Still, over burgers and beers the conversation turned to what she considers her hyper-competitive nature.  As she bemoaned her need to be the best, my own hypo-competitive personality was thrown into stark relief.

I know that competition spawns excellence. But as it also invites failure and disappointment, I have long retreated to the safe haven of apathy. When a competitive situation arises, I smile politely and slowly back out of the room.  I loved basketball as a kid but gave it up to avoid try-outs.  I withdrew from sorority rush days before it began, unnerved by a roomful of girls scrutinizing me.  I don't fly Southwest anymore; the jostling for position necessitated by their lack of seat assignments gave me a stomachache.

This is not what I want for my girls.  Much as I adhere to the youth soccer league's no score policy, I truly wish that Big E cared enough to keep a running tally.  When I lament her politely abandoning the ball to any defender who challenges her, my husband dismisses my concern by telling me that she's smarter than all of them.  I like to think this is true.  And still, I know from experience that the world is skewed more to those who are first to the ball than those in the top reading group.

I thought maybe this weekend's events would provide me with some teachable moments for the girls:  this is how one cheers on one's alma mater, this is a penalty kick...please don't grow up to be a pushover like your mother. 

The football game, it quickly became clear, would not be the place to inspire an appreciation of competition.  Within the first few minutes, our University of Richmond quarterback threw an interception that resulted in a game-ending injury for him and a touchdown for the other team.  It didn't get better from there.  The only teachable moment came when a sloppy coed in faux-denim leggings and facepaint whiskers plopped herself onto the visitors stands and slurred "Richmond sucks..."  The take away: leggings are not pants.

The soccer game was equally fruitless.  Over the last couple of years, the girls have seen enough pushing, shoving, swearing, sweaty men to inure them to the competitive spirit out on the pitch.  They did marvel, though, at the artificial turf's ability to at once look like dirt, and yet not be dirt.  Perhaps there's a lesson there, but not the one I was looking for.

And so it landed on me to create the teachable moment with my race.  I thought I had an idea of what the takeaway would be.  On my training runs, I had reminded myself that all I really had to do was keep my breath steady and put foot in front of foot.  At the time it seemed an apt metaphor for life.  Yet when I found myself in that pack of 8,000 women all heading to the same place, I felt less slow and steady wins the race than go big or go home.

So, instead of plodding safely and breathing evenly as I'd envisioned, I jostled, struggled, surged, and gasped. I finished six minutes ahead of my target time, beat 5,645 of the 6,696 finishers, and felt elated for having actually competed.

The girls were less interested in my triumph than in the Happy Meals that my father had bought them while I was running.  But that's okay.  I learned the lesson and now I can teach it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Work: Progress Report

It's progress report time at work.  So, in the spirit of reporting progress, I decided to take a look at how I am faring in my year of balance and despite a slightly bumpy start, it's going well. 

One of my biggest concerns, that shaving two-and-a-half hours off of my day wouldn't justify hacking 40 percent off of my salary, seems unfounded.  I've always noticed that if I take an extra two minuthere es to get Big E and I out of the house in the morning, those minutes seem to somehow repoduce along the way until I'm well more than two minutes behind schedule.  We will inevitably get stuck behind a school bus, my harried rush will cause Big E to cling a little longer at drop-off, the parking lot at work will be choked with other frazzled parents blocking the travel lanes with their own drop-offs, and on and on.

Amazingly, it actually works the same way in reverse.  Those extra two-and-a-half hours are amplified in the same way the two minutes are: fewer hours at work, fewer classes to prep, fewer papers to grade, less time wasted complaining, fewer hours spent panicking, and on and on.

And since my field has taught me that undocumented success is not success at all, here is evidence of my progress:

More playing fetch,
more playing house,
more apple picking,

more bike riding,



more tire riding,



more llama feeding,

more playgrounds,


and even more soccer (because there should always be room for improvement).




Not bad.  Now to work on the less photogenic details that I may have neglected, like more floor-mopping and more toilet-scrubbing...


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dream: Seeking Shangri-La

A few weeks ago Little E and I stopped at a playground in the pedestrian mall of a nearby downtown.  I had just picked her up from daycare and was already out of step with the other moms by virtue of my shoes --high and pointy, not low and sensible.  Feeling out of place --and shunned by Little E who asked me to please sit quietly while she played by herself-- I sat watched as the woman on the bench next to me ranted to her friend.

"Two years and nine months," she shouted, gesturing emphatically.  "Two years and nine months.  If they tell me that the class will be two years and nine months in January, there better not be anyone in that class who's turning two years and nine months in February.  I see what the neighbors kids are doing in their preschool.  They're drawing faces and hair.  FACES.  HAIR.  We're just coloring.  JUST COLORING."

Were I not afforded a dual perspective on the "mommy wars" by my current part-time arrangement, I might wrongly chalk her hysteria up to too much time on her hands. But I know that this ultra-competitiveness, this hyper-awareness extends to the parents at Little E's daycare, as well. 

Just the week before, I attended the open house in her Pre-K class at daycare, where the parents peppered the teachers with questions carefully worded to reference both the extensive academic work they did at home and their child's prowess. (He's really mastered his capital letters, but how can we help him to neaten up his lower-case --when we do our writing practice...which we do every night?  When should we start doing math problems?  I mean she can write all of her numbers, but she can't quite add them yet.)  These are three-and-a-half year olds who spend up to 50 hours a week in daycare...and who apparently have a pressing need to keep up with their correspondence and balance their checkbooks.

Then there was Big E's first grade open house, where all of the parents sat, bent onto chairs a foot high, nodding approvingly as the teacher delivered a spiel that highlighted the word "work" above all others: "working snack", "nightly homework," "work them hard," "work, work, work."  Nary a "learn," "think," or heaven forbid, "enjoy" to be heard.  When one man asked whether his daughter had started receiving her special services yet, hands shot up around the room.  (Special?  What kind of special services are available?  How can I find out whether we qualify for special services?  How often can you get these special services?  What of I have a particular special service in mind for my child?

I won't get into Big E's soccer games, where my husband, the volunteer coach, gently explains the rules and encourages good sportsmanship to children whose parents shout instruction like they're on the sideline at the World Cup.  I won't go on about how every week those parents fold up their lawn chairs at the end of the game and walk off without a word, as my husband picks up balls and cones like the hired help.  I certainly won't mention the lady who called my house last Saturday during dinner to air her grievances about his volunteer coaching. 

The competitiveness, the entitlement, the un-funness of it all, I'd like to think it's regional, that I could pull out a map and find the town where three year-olds color without the pressure of adding hair, where first-graders' homework consists of the occasional diorama, where parents pull up to soccer practice and drop their kids off --or at least say "thank you" after scrutinizing the coach's technique for an hour.  I reminisce fondly about the rural town where I grew up (think Ross Perot signs and poor dental hygiene, not pastoral settings and organic produce), but my mother assures me that it's just as bad there.  I consider other parts of the country, but the chorus remains:  that's the way it is everywhere.

I dream of moving far away.  Maybe we could find our happy, laid-back existence amongst the lingonberries and flat pack furniture in Sweden.  Maybe we could move to Paris and dress the children in little coats and hats and send them out to experience the city with a benevolent nun.  Most likely, though, what I'm seeking is Shangri-La.

(Full disclosure:  I recently signed Little E up for weekly phonics lessons to the tune of $110 a month.  It is ridiculous, I know, and flies completely in the face of everything I believe.  I'm hedging my bets.  When I hear her singing "Monkeys making muffins, mmm, mmm, mmm..." it makes me feel a little bit better about her flat-out refusal to draw a face --don't even get me started on hair.) 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Eat: Late to the party, loving the buttercream

Somehow, I always tend to be a little late to the party.  I watched Sex in the City in late night syndication, I set up my Facebook account a month ago, and last weekend I ate my first fancy bakery cupcake.

When it becomes clear that everybody likes something, I tend to avoid it.  This is partly a contrarian move, but it's also practical, as my tastes tend to be out of step with everybody's.  Until recently (and probably again in the near future), I have been on the losing team during election season.  If I love a television show, it is surely destined for an early demise (and I'm still waiting for the Arrested Development movie).  And since cake is not my dessert of choice, I figured shrinking it and wrapping it in paper wouldn't do much to help.

Thanks to my husband's barber, I realize that I was wrong about that.

She turned him on to the bakery that sold him the cupcakes that showed me that maybe everybody was on to something...in this case.  As it turns out, the cupcake's appeal lies in something bigger than taste.  It's about choice.

My culinary tastes tend to be incompatible with those of the rest of the family, so the autonomy offered by the cupcakes more than makes up for its being cake. Generally, I design our menus to avoid things that they hate, like cheese, tomatoes, artichokes, cream sauces, mushrooms; the list goes on and on and, coincidentally, is nearly identical to the list of items that I most enjoy eating.  But I am outnumbered.

 The cupcakes freed me to eat exactly what I wanted with no guilt or compromise.  I could enjoy my chocolate ganache with peanut butter mousse while everyone else had their cinnamon, lemon or cookies and cream.  Sure, the towering crowns of buttercream were a challenenge after my birthday dinner of spicy shrimp tandoori masala.  And my training run the next morning was somehwhat hampered by my overdose of butter and confectioner's sugar.

It was worth it, though.  Cupcakes, it turns out, are a little taste of culinary independence.  Sometimes everybody has a point.     

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Play: Managing Expectations

As a child, I cried myself to sleep on Christmas night nearly every year.  I would count down the days starting in September, begin decorating in October, wake before sunrise on Christmas day, open mounds of gifts, visit with relatives, eat lovingly prepared meals and then lie in bed and realize that it was all over...and that, again, it hadn't quite measured up to my expectations.

It's not gifts that I fetishize these days, but family time.  I don't cry on Christmas night anymore; I pout on family outings...like Sunday's family ice skating trip. 

My husband and the girls got me a pair of ice skates for my birthday.  Though Big E has been in skating lessons for over a year and Little E recently started lessons, I haven't owned a pair of skates since I was in ninth grade.  There was no rink near where I grew up, so every winter I'd wait for the few days between when the lake down the street from my house froze and when a foot of crusty snow covered the smooth ice.  Sometimes that window of clean ice never came, and when it did it was brief. 

So, you can see why I might aggrandize the prospect of an afternoon at the rink with my loving family, wearing their overwhelming thoughtful gift --the one I've wanted since I was 15, sharing with my kids an activity that would have made my winter when I was their age.  Big E and I would hold hands and fly around the rink; Little E would clutch my hand in her little mittened paw as I supported her tentative steps.  My husband and would smile at each other over our happy children.  It would be just perfect.

Or maybe it wouldn't.  Maybe Little E would cling to my husband and glare at me, refusing to hold my hand.  Maybe Big E would decide that she'd rather die than hold my hand and that, actually, she'd rather pretend to play the arcade games in the lobby than skate with me.  Maybe some totally irresponsible little girl leaning on a training bar would wander into my path and I'd fall on my ass trying to avoid her.  Perhaps some older girls would even rush over to see if I was okay, looking pretty certain that I'd probably broken a hip, making me feel approximately as old as Betty White. It would be just typical.

I'll admit that the girl who cried at Christmas emerged for a bit.  But I soothed her by pointing out that not only do I have the skates now, but, even better than a mound of gifts, I have the family that knew to get me those skates for me... and we can work on the rest.