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, shouted, that there was really no point in going.  But thanks to the binding nature of a bid on, 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.

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

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.