Friday, September 23, 2011

Dream: My last day of 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

Play: Even Steven, fair and square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair's fair.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything I should add?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Work: The empty hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dream: The growing season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eat: Cookin' it old school

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

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

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

Nan's Oyster Crackers

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

Pour the oyster crackers into a large bowl.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Unpacking

From the time that I was in fifth grade until I started college, my family would pack into the station wagon each summer for our annual vacation week.  Over the years we took a lot of trips to Washington, D.C., spent a cloudy week in Montreal, tried Williamsburg, Virginia, and racked up some free nights in my grandmother's Florida condo.

I remember the monuments and museums, sure, but the comedy of the family travel drama tends to overshadow the travelogue.When my younger brother and I reminisce about these trips we talk about the time that my mother burst into tears upon first sight of our dingy Holiday Inn room and made us spend the rest of the night driving around searching fruitlessly for a new room, or the time she forced us on a sweaty march through site of the Battle of Bull Run and the ensuing interfamilial blowout rivaled the war between the states for hurt feelings and residual tension.

This talk always shocks my mother.  Though she did her fair share of fuming in traffic, weeping over accommodations and threatening to shut the whole trip down, her memories center around family togetherness and the sense of shared adventure. Until I became a mother I thought she was pretending not to remember the messier moments, but now I know that just as nature protects the species by dulling women's memories of the pain of childbirth, it protects the great tradition of the family vacation by filtering mothers' memories of the trips through a soft focus lens.

Though on our recent family vacation, I threatened more than once to call the whole thing off, by the time we hit the Delaware Memorial Bridge on our return trip, the frustrations, resentments and various sore spots I'd developed through the trip began to slip away. Though I'd tearfully apologized to my husband more than once during the trip for inflicting this expensive week and a half of punishment on us all, I turned to him as I drove across the bridge and sighed, satisfied, "Well, that was a nice trip."

I was telling the truth, because as I sped us up I-95, the hour that we spent driving around D.C. trying without a map to locate the zoo morphed from infuriating to humorous.  I remembered pointing out the Capitol to the girls each of the 15 times we looped past it, but not so much the tears of frustration that sprung forth somewhere after the tenth sighting. I smiled at the memory of my husband offering to run into a medical center in a questionable neighborhood for directions despite the fact that it housed only a detox center, an STD clinic and a psychiatric emergency room, and glazed over the part where I told him that if he dared to leave his wife and daughters in that parking lot I would be forced to lock him out of the car.

I thought back on the evening I spent getting reacquainted with a close high school friend I hadn't seen since college.  We sat with our husbands and watched our children play together in her very grown up home in Florida, far from our high school days in Central Massachusetts, and yet she was as fun and comfortable a presence as she'd been half a lifetime ago. On that drive back north I let slip away the hours leading up to our visit in which I'd been seized by high school-era anxiety about my clothes, my weight, my hair and the ridiculous spoiler on the back of our rental car.  And I tried to let go the haunting feeling I'd had woken with the morning after the visit that if high school me had been sitting next to me on that couch she'd have been less than impressed and not at all understanding about the rental car.

I remembered our visit to the Nickelodeon Hotel, the grand finale of the vacation, for the thrill the girls got from sleeping in their Spongebob-themed room and not for their teary souvenir demands.  The woman who crowded onto a small bench with us in the lobby during check-in and immediately began muttering angrily to herself and scratching as if infested became another travel anecdote punchline and not cause to search the suite so aggressively for bedbugs that Little E refused to sleep under her covers and would only allow us to drape her with a towel.

It is likely that someday my daughters will sit all grown up at my table finishing off Thanksgiving desserts and laughing about the time I used being desperately lost in D.C. to point out to their father why we really should have smart phones.  They may mock my shouting about how lucky they should consider themselves to have the kind of parents who would take them on vacation and shake their heads at the ridiculousness of dragging two young girls around a sweltering southern college campus so we could show them where we ate, where we went to class, where we lived, where we studied, where we bought books, where we went to parties, where we got our mail, and on and on.

If this happens I will probably remind them of bobbing in warm gulf waters, spotting dolphins, riding waterslides, seeing elephants feed and sitting in the gazebo on the campus pond watching the ducks land, but I hope that I'll also appreciate the humor in their memories. And I hope that they'll someday plan their own family vacations, so as to to prove to me that they weren't too traumatized by ours.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Read my Review of The Kid on BlogHer

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to step far outside of my reading comfort zone and read The Kid by Sapphire for the Blogher Book Club.

Please check out my review there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I travel with my kids

Why do I travel with my kids?  I have been asking myself this question a lot over the past five days. On the surface, the answers are obvious: experiencing the world through their unjaded eyes, encouraging them to seek out new experiences, enjoying the camaraderie of a shared adventure.  Yet, as we wind through our summer tour of the hot and humid states, I'm finding these reasons lacking the inspiration that I need to make it through some of the more challenging moments.

For those times when I find myself dragging a screaming child off the beach, negotiating blanket placement between two kids unaccustomed to bed-sharing, or pulling off the highway for a bathroom break 15 minutes after the previous bathroom break, I have come up with these less obvious, possibly more compelling benefits to travelling with my children.

I am forced to face my fears.

Though I nearly wept a of couple weeks ago when I had to bring Little E to the foul composting toilet at our beach at home, life on the road demands that I put aside my long held belief that every surface in a public bathroom is coated in a microscopic layer of the fecal matter of dirty strangers.  I cannot help but quietly chant my public bathroom mantra: Don't touch anything; don't touch anything.  But when Little E asked at a Delaware rest area whether she could touch the floor with the bottoms of her shoes, I told her okay --and I didn't even attempt to sterilize her Crocs when we got to the hotel.


I learn new things about my children --and myself.

Some of the little foibles that my children have displayed this week are harmless. Little E has decided that she is a dog and bought herself a dog bandanna in the bookstore of my alma mater (and wore said bandanna to dinner). Big E likes to practice figure skating moves as we walk down city sidewalks. These little quirks may not be particularly fashion forward or convenient for fellow pedestrians, but I actually find them kind of endearing.  That the lack of Radio Disney in the rental car brings my daughters to tears and that my choosing to leave on a station with "grown up music" is received as a personal insult, is much more concerning and shall be addressed. That I will endure an entire Bonnie Raitt song despite my own distaste for it simply because I enjoy watching both girls scream angrily and cover their ears? That probably needs some exploration as well.

I gain new (more accurate?) perspectives on myself.

The other day as I attempted to cull some of the 200 shots already on my camera, I came across one of myself sitting by the edge of the children's pool at the beach down the street from my in-laws.  My shoulders were slightly slumped and the bathing suit that had looked so strategic in the mirror at home was not living up to its promise. I just barely stopped myself from wailing to my husband, "I look like someone's mother!" Ludicrous, I know, that this is so upsetting, as I have been someone's mother for over seven years now. As the trip went on, my earth shattering revelation that I do in fact look like someone's mother was further cemented by the fact that I carried a purse stuffed with two handfuls of broken and melting restaurant crayons and a barrel of Wet Ones.  Then, the other day in Richmond Little E recoiled in horror as I dressed for the day. "Not that dress!  Don't put on that dress with the flowers!," she cried mortified. 

I ignored her pleas spent the morning in sensible shoes and a flowered dress with a camera case hanging from my shoulder and a mega pack of wipes in my bag, looking every bit like someone's mother at the campus where I long ago wore tight jeans and cute heels carried no more than a lipstick in my pocket .

I'm hoping that these new insights will see me through the rest of the trip, but there are still six days, one flight, 500 miles in the car and countless public toilets to come.  Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Road Trip, Revised

Right now I'm feeling thankful for the surge in the bed bug population, high gas prices and Little E's recent claims of car sickness.

These are the things that convinced me that the road trip I'd planned for this summer was a really bad plan.  When we take off on our summer tour of the hot and humid states, the driving part --the part where I planned to learn to love the journey as much as the destination-- will be truncated by half.

We'll still stop at my husband's parents' beach house at the Jersey Shore, not the fist-pumping part but the part that is apparently referred to as the Irish Riviera.  There we'll negotiate bizarre traffic patterns banning left turns and will feel like underachievers when every other couple we see has at least four children in tow.

We'll still stop in Richmond, where we'll drag the kids around the campus where we met, because, of course, kids love brick buildings and their parents' reminiscences.

And then, and this is the best part, we will get on an airplane and make the rest of the trip to Florida in two hours --a trip that I originally thought would take two days.

I will enjoy sipping from the warm Diet Coke balanced on my knee in my cramped quarters on the plane and I will enjoy watching reality show repeats on the seatback screen. Mostly, I will enjoy hurtling through the air 30,000 feet above the motels along I-95 where I'd have peeled back the sheets and studied the mattress for signs of infestation, above the countless stinking, dingy public toilets I'd have had to endure with the girls, and above the hundred squealing arguments that would have spilled forth from the backseat.

I will, in my way, enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eat: The Beach Picnic

Earlier this summer, my husband took a week long class and I spent the week hanging out with the girls. For many mothers all this alone time with the kids is status quo, but I am spoiled by being married to a fellow teacher and so am used to having adult company all summer.

For some reason spending this first week of summer with the girls while he was off learning about globalizing education or some such made me think of Liz Lemon, Tina Fey's character on 30 Rock. She aspires to be like Ina Garten, Food Network's Barefoot Contessa, who, according to Liz, sees her husband only on weekends and spends the rest of the time eating and drinking with her gay friends. Our trip to the zoo and our doughnuts on the beach lacked the understated Hamptons elegance of  Ina's weekdays and my companions weren't nearly as fashionable as hers. Nonetheless, I was inspired.

To celebrate my husband's last day of class the girls and I put together a beach picnic dinner, which seemed very much like something Ina would spend an episode on in eager anticipation of husband Jeffrey's return. We didn't pack a linen tablecloth like I'm sure Ina would have and we burnt the cookies, but we did manage a very tasty steak sandwich and a variation on my old favorite, watermelon salad.

Seared Steak Sandwich with Arugula and Parmesan

2 New York Strip Steaks
Salt and Pepper
About 3 cups of baby arugula
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano (you won't use the whole thing)
loaf of french bread

Preheat the oven to 450.

Pat the steaks dry on all sides and season with salt and pepper.  Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat.  Once it is hot enough that a drop of water sizzles on its surface, add the steaks and sear them for two minutes on each side.

Once you've done this, put the steaks in the heated oven for about 4 minutes.  Remove them from the pan and allow them to rest on a carving board.

Meanwhile, whisk together the oil and vinegar in the bottom of a medium bowl, then add the arugula and toss until it's coated.

Slice the steak on the diagonal into 1/4 inch thick slices, pouring any juices that are released back over the sliced steak.

Cut the bread to the desired size for your sandwiches and pile it with dressed arugula followed by slices of steak.

Finally, use a vegetable peeler along the side of the parmigiano-reggiano to create extremely thin slices to top the steak.

Watermelon with Goat Cheese and Pistachios

1/4 watermelon, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 oz. goat cheese
1 cup of shelled pistachios

Prepare individual salads by dividing the watermelon among four containers. The Barefoot Contessa would use little Mason jars or something equally tasteful; I went for disposable faux-Tupperware.

Crumble goat cheese over the watermelon.

Coarsely chop the pistachios and sprinkle them over the salads.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

To those of you planning a wedding (and those who aren't)

Day 1
To those of you planning a wedding, I know how it goes.  It was just over 11 years ago that I was in your crazed, seating chart-strategizing, favor ribbon-tying place and having just celebrated another anniversary, I've been thinking about it all.

If you're anything like me, you'll spend the year before the big day agonizing over important choices like buffet or sit-down.  You'll search high and low to find the florist who can provide you with the exact color of blue hydrangea that you envision for your bouquet.  You'll try on dresses in white, cream and ivory, ball gowns, sheaths and A-lines, searching for the one that makes you feel beautiful without bankrupting you.  You'll work hard to convince your future mother-in-law that not all justices of the peace are Elvis-impersonators and a DJ can be just as classy as a band but at half the price.

And then the day will actually come.  If yours goes anything like mine, the florist who promised those blue hydrangeas will show up with white and you'll fight back tears until your mother tells her that she'll just have to go back and fix it. Then just before you walk down the aisle, you will fluff the reasonably priced but still flattering dress you settled on, your father will beam proudly at you and then step squarely on the back of it, leaving a muddy size 11 footprint on the ivory train. And it will rain, angry sheets of water deluging the outdoor courtyard that was to be the site of your cocktail hour. A distant cousin will take issue with his table assignment and drunkenly confront your groom, and some middle-aged lady on the groom's side will waste many frames of the disposable camera on her table taking pictures of herself giving the finger. As the evening winds down, the DJ, who promised to keep it classy, will berate guests for not dancing and will sign off by thanking them for their presence and warning them that they better not drive if "shitfaced," and you will feel mortified for all of the little old ladies in the room.

But none of that will actually matter, because you will be celebrating a life-changing event with all of the people who are most important to you (except for your cousin and that lady, who were invited strictly out of obligation). Guests will rave about the beautiful ceremony and pretend not to have noticed that the DJ made efficient use of the open bar. You will wake up the next morning and you will be married (MARRIED!) and the sun will be shining and you'll go home to pack for a honeymoon so exotic that at least three people wondered if you would need to get a lot of shots (and you, always accounting for the thick New England accent where you live, will have told them that actually you were packing long skirts because in some cultures it's considered disrespectful for a woman to show her knees and then you will have wondered why they looked at you so strangely).

You will drive down the highway with your streamers and balloons and "Just Married" sign and people will honk and wave and give you the thumbs up, and you will feel special and happy and excited about everything to come.  And that's a really good thing because, as some of those well-wishers will know, it won't be like this everyday.

There will be more rain, sometimes so much that it pours in through the roof.

There will be things even messier than a footprint on a dress.  There will be clogged toilets and leaking pipes.  There will be the miraculous, bodily fluid-drenched mayhem of childbirth, and there will be diapers and potty seats. And there will be vomit: dog vomit, baby vomit, stomach virus vomit, morning sickness vomit, so much vomit.

There will be things more worthy of tears than the wrong-colored flowers. Sometimes you will watch your children struggle more than you can bear and sometimes they will hurt in a way you can't fix. There will be mortgage applications and job losses, trips to the emergency vet and the emergency room, and there will be funerals and biopsies and nights of wakeful worry followed by days when you don't want to pick your head up off the pillow.

And if you are anything like me, 11 years to the day later you will find yourself at dollar night at the children's museum, because promises were made without regard to the date, because you'd have felt guilty getting a sitter anyway after sending the kids away the weekend before, and because, really, it's just a day no different than the rest. You will be wearing a dress that looked cute on the clearance rack at Marshall's, but which now makes you feel like you've been shopping in your mother-in-law's closet (though your husband will deny this and seem a little disgusted by the suggestion). You will have spent the past week breaking up fights between your kids and trying to manage their suddenly excruciatingly frequent fits and tantrums and you will wish that instead of driving to the children's museum, that echo chamber of whines and screams, you could get into your car drive anywhere else. Alone.  When some sort of kerfuffle breaks out between the children as they are loaded into the car, you may even share this wish as you stand in the driveway, pouting, arms crossed.

But you'll make remarkably good time as you march the children through the museum, and they won't even complain when you skip the gift shop. Only one will demand to be carried on your evening stroll through the city, and the breeze will feel soft on your skin. As the kids watch the harbor seals flopped in their tank outside the aquarium, you'll look up at an orange full moon hovering just above the masts of the boats moored in the harbor you'll know that even though the DJ was a bust and the buffet line got a little backed up, you got the most important choice right.

After 11 years, it mostly matters that you chose the person who will run for the buckets when it starts to rain, help you mop up the vomit when it comes, get your head off the pillow when it wants to stay, and patiently wait out your pout until you calm down and get in the car. And --maybe especially-- the person who thinks you look nothing like his mother and likes it that way.

Day 4,015

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Updating

My husband and I spent Thursday night (our first child-free night in months, as the kids were spending a long weekend at my parents') picking out flooring and fixtures with the contractor we recently hired to do some updating in our bathroom and kitchen. As with much of my child-free time, it was neither relaxing nor romantic.

I grew up in a house where for most of my childhood problems from dysfunctional toilets to stalling cars were solved with a trip to the library for the appropriate how-to guide, a fair amount of cursing, and eventually my father's own hands. After our evening with the contractor, I felt stressed and agitated.  My husband, who grew up in a family where every dilemma from an unhung picture to a burnt out taillight was solved by paying someone, asked me what was wrong. 

"I just want him to like me," I told my husband of the contractor, "and also to think I have good taste."

"You don't need to care whether he likes you," he explained patiently, "that's why we're paying him money."

The next morning, I started in on the ambitious redecorating project I had planned for the girls' room. As I set to work transforming a heap of leftover furniture into a new bedroom "set" for their room, I examined my motives for turning a sunny and responsibility-free summer weekend into an episode of Trading Spaces.  I decided that my sudden DIY fervor was driven by a need to prove my own handiness and self-sufficiency so that I might feel better about hiring someone to remove the faux-tile and crumbling vinyl the previous owners left behind.

Later, after we'd filled a contractor bag with the mountain of neglected stuffed animals and torn up board books that would go out with the trash, I announced urgently for the third time since we'd started cleaning out the room, "We need to have another child." 

Calmly, my husband dared me, "Sure."

In that moment, as I imagined rolling back the clock to pregnancy, infancy, toddler years, I realized what it was all about, all my priming, painting, drilling, decoupaging, for goodness sake.

I cannot keep Big E from drifting toward tween-hood, but I can take the bed I slept in through my teenage years, the one whose scrolly white metal and brass accents seemed impossibly glamorous at the time, and spray it a suitably little girl pink for her.



I cannot keep either of my girls from growing out of their clothes, their shoes, their babyhood, their toddlerhood, and, always on my mind lately, their childhood, but I can use chalkboard paint and casters to make personalizable underbed storage of the drawers from the little dresser that held Big E's 2T dresses and footy pajamas.



I cannot change the fact that Little E outgrew her toddler bed (or that we admitted this to ourselves about a year late), but I can paste her big sister's old headboard with cute puppies and kittens and varnish it over and over to convince myself that she will always love cute doggies just as she does now.



And the butterfly wall decals that I affixed above Big E's bed.  I wish that I could say that they are about embracing transformation or something equally lovely, but really they are about the constant scorekeeping between the girls, the arguing and accusing and fit-throwing that has me feeling like the kind of angry, yelling, furrowed-brow mother that I had never planned to be.  These butterflies are about how miffed I knew Big E would be by Little E's dogs and the frustration that I channeled into my vise grip on the handle of the race car cart as I pushed the squealing, squabbling girls through the endless Home Depot trip to stock up on spray paint and casters and drawer pulls.

Chalkboard paint and decoupage medium won't keep my kids from getting older every day, just as mourning the passage of time won't guarantee that I appreciate each moment I'm in. And having a baby to reset the ticking clock won't forestall all the growing and aging and changing.

And besides, where would he sleep?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Have I told you my superhuman birth story?

Have I told you about the time that I gave birth to a nine-pound baby without any pain medication whatsoever? I probably have.  Well, since we're on the subject, I labored for 24 unmedicated hours, and a few years later I did it again.  But that time it was only a few hours of labor and eight and a half pounds of baby, which is nothing really.

I know that boasting about natural birth experiences is frowned upon and not just because of the mental images it evokes.  Check out any pregnancy and baby websites and you'll see that the debate between the epidural-users and the pain relief-shunners rages just as viciously as the wars between the cloth-diaperers and pampers-lovers, the formula-feeders and the breast-is-besters, and the stay-at-home moms and working mothers.  But I don't brag about my natural birthing exploits to portray myself as a superior mother or to degrade anyone else's life choices. I do it purely out of necessity. I need to prove to the world that I am not an enormous wimp. . . despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The first time I pulled out the natural birthing defense was when Big E was a baby.  Having spent the five months since her birth fretting over all the ways in which I could tragically screw up the enormous job of being her mother, calling her doctor at odd hours to inquire about imaginary symptoms (including, once, a lopsided head), and chewing my fingernails to nubs, I developed a raging infection on my left index finger.  Because it was Memorial Day weekend and because my doctor was also my daughter's and he'd likely heard enough from me, I was referred to the ER where they told me that they'd have to rip open the abscess with a needle.  As I begged the doctor to numb my hand before he lanced it, I told him about the heroic 24-hour labor that I'd endured mere months earlier as if this had earned me some pain relief.  He smiled politely and told me that even young children manage this procedure without numbing.  I didn't bother to point out that those kids likely hadn't pushed out a 9-pounder.

A few months after Little E's birth, I was conducting the elaborate flossing routine that I'd adopted in place of actually going to the dentist, which I'd been too afraid to do for the previous six years, when I dislodged a giant chunk of filling. I tried to convince myself that I could probably live with the gaping chasm in my molar, but that plan quickly proved ridiculous and I was forced to search out a new dental practice.  I found a lovely new dentist whose office was in walking distance of my house and decorated as if it were where the people who live in the Pottery Barn catalog get their teeth drilled. Her exam room radio was tuned to the same station I listen to in my car and her tiny little hands fit comfortably in my mouth without triggering my very active gag reflex. Naturally, I wanted to impress her and so as I sat shaking in the chair, trying to explain that I was pretty sure the Novocaine wasn't working, I said "I just had a baby a few months ago and I didn't have an epidural or anything, so, you know, it's not that I can't handle some pain." She smiled politely and handed me a copy of Real Simple to read while I waited to feel sufficiently numb.

Last month that same tooth flared up and required a root canal, four years after that original appointment. When my students scoffed at my pleas for kindness in the face of my toothache, I managed to stop myself from baring my badge of birthing honor before I put an unspeakable image in the minds of a roomful of 16-year-old boys. I did, however, mention it a few times to my husband in trying impress upon him the immensity of the pain. To his credit, he just nodded reverently.

A couple weeks ago as I was walking into Target with the girls, Little E stopped short in front of me and I stubbed my flip flop clad little toe against the foam rubber block of her Croc, wrenching my toe at an excruciating angle.  I limped heavily and short-temperedly through the store but managed not to tell any of the horrified onlookers about my previous pain-management feats.  When I got home, though, I spent days speculating to my husband about whether I'd broken my toe, showing off the deep purple bruise that spanned my foot, describing the exact sensation of trying to jog on it (every step as painful as jolt of slamming your finger with a hammer), and, of course, brandishing my birthing badge of honor as proof that I was not being a wimp.

My husband's own pain tolerance resume includes checking back into a soccer game minutes after tearing ligaments in his ankle and staying on the field in another game when he took a hit hard enough to chip the bone in the other ankle, and so I have a grudging respect for him.  When he told me that it could take a few months before it felt all the way better, I asked how he knew this.  When he told me that he was pretty sure he'd broken his toe playing indoor soccer this past winter, an injury that he apparently didn't feel merited mention, I felt a little wimpy about the minute-by-minute updates I'd provided about my own toe pain. I tried to remind myself of my superhuman tolerance for pain, but I was unconvinced.  What is the statute of limitations on the valor of natural childbirth, anyway? I wondered.  At four-and-a-half years, I fear I may be running out of mileage.

Not that the thought crossed my mind, but I decided that disproving my obvious wimpiness is a selfish reason to bring a child into the world, and besides our house is pretty full as it is. Also, there's no guarantee I'd be able to pull off another drug-free labor. I am, after all, kind of a wimp.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Not-So-New Review: The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

Some people have the means to pre-order a hardcover copy of every interesting read they hear about and some have the ability to download in an instant any title that strikes their fancy.  I envy those people, but this review isn't for them. It is for the bargain shelf-shopping, interlibrary loan-borrowing, not so of-the-moment, frugal readers like me. Enjoy.


I came across Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap on the sale rack of a local bookstore on a day when I had cut my already truncated work day even shorter than normal because it was exam week and I was completely caught up on my grading, had already cleaned and organized my desk and had found myself considering redecorating the bulletin board in the closet-like department office where I'm kept. I had stopped at bookstore to pick up a gift certificates for end of the year teacher gifts but started browsing because I had time before I had to get to Little E's daycare. As I strolled through the quiet shelves, I realized that I was out in the world on a sunny June day while most people were stuck at work.  I felt soaringly fortunate but also a little insignificant. It seems improbably serendipitous that I would stumble across a book about just this sort of conundrum for only $3.98, but it's true.

The Ten Year Nap focuses on Amy Lamb and her circle New York City mothers, most of whom she knows from the all-boys private school her 10-year-old son attends, but it also offers quick glimpses into the lives and hearts of a range of women from the mothers of the main characters, to Margaret Thatcher's personal assistant to Georgette Magritte to a casino cashier in South Dakota.  In telling their various stories the novel explores the way women view work and success and how motherhood impacts women's expectations for themselves. 

Wolitzer writes about serious issues with a sense of humor that entertained me but also prompted me to think a lot about my own decisions and motivation.  However, as someone who was raised by a factory worker father and waitress-turned-secretary mother, parents whose work had nothing to do with ego or affluence and everything to do with feeding, clothing and sheltering their children, I wished that Wolitzer had included a more nuanced look at the parenting and relationship issues present when full-time mothering is not an option.

Overlooking or romanticizing the working poor seems prevalent in much of what is written about work and motherhood, though, so I tried not to hold it against Wolitzer. This was made easier by the fact that even if the central characters may not feel entirely relatable to me on the surface, much of what they go through is: the complicated results of pulling off the career track in order to focus on motherhood, the pain of admitting that a child's path might be more difficult than you'd hoped, the unearned resentment that a spouse's success can breed, and the ease with which a person can trick herself into believing that she can have everything she wants even when she can't. 

In addition to touching on universal emotions, Wolitzer also finds the words to express them in a way that makes the familiar feel extraordinary: "You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you'd given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless.  You wouldn't know the outcome for a long time."   Passages like that so eloquently express my own feelings that I found myself feeling a little put out that she could phrase my own thoughts so much better than I ever have.  Stay-at-home mother, lawyer, teacher, waitress or casino cashier, mothers in all their incarnations, I think, can relate to this central truth about the nature of motherhood.

Regardless of my ambivalence about the career choices that had me browsing a bookstore at 11 a.m. on a Monday --or what Meg Wolitzer might think of them-- I'm glad I found The Ten-Year Nap and will be looking for more from her at the library.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Eat: Lobster BLT with tarragon-lemon mayonnaise



The summer after my freshman year in college I stayed with my husband (then my fairly new boyfriend) at his parents house on Long Island for ten days.  There were many awkward moments during that long visit to the home of the people who would one day be my in-laws, including the lobster dinner that inspired this meal.

Back then I was a sort-of vegetarian.  I didn't eat red meat at all, rarely ate chicken and hadn't really taken a stand on seafood; in reality, it was all probably a product of the same food weirdness that had rendered me incapable of eating in front of boys in high school and I eventually grew out of it.  At the time, though, when I pulled up to the table surrounded by my then boyfriend, his two older sisters, his parents and his grandparents, I simply couldn't fathom tying on a plastic bib, tearing a crustacean limb from limb and slurping down its butter-dipped innards, and so I politely declined. His family's ensuing shock, insistence on my eating mounds of salad, and speculation about the motivation behind my pseudo-vegetarianism made me silently vow that I would learn to eat lobster like a grown up, a skill that would have saved me one of the most blushingly uncomfortable meals of my life.

I'm happy to report that I have, in fact, learned to eat lobster, though I mostly stick to the tail and legs and sometimes need some help tearing off the body. So, when my in-laws came to visit last weekend, some 17 years after that first lobster dinner, I decided that I'd serve them lobster on my own terms. I made these sandwiches and served them with corn on the cob, a not-too-heavy-on-the-mayo cole slaw from epicurious.com and beer (UFO White with lemon wedges). And I ate it like a grown up.


Lobster BLTs with tarragon-lemon mayo

For the mayonnaise

1/2 cup of store-bought mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste

For the sandwich

Claw and tail meat from two 1 1/2 pound steamed lobsters (Most grocery stores steam them for free sparing you an unpleasant scene in the kitchen.)
12 slices of good quality bacon
One tomato, sliced thin
Eight leaves of Boston lettuce
Eight thick slices of the bread of your choice, toasted (I used challah; the sweetness worked nicely with the tartness of the tarragon-lemon mayo.)


Combine the ingredients for the mayonnaise a couple of hours before you plan to serve the sandwiches and let it sit in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to come together.

Shell the lobster. Slice the tail meat into 1/4-inch thick discs and roughly chop the claw meat.

Cook the bacon so that it is crisp but not burnt. 

Assemble the sandwiches by slathering the toast with mayo,  piling on lobster and topping it with two leaves of lettuce, three slices of bacon and tomato.

Cut the sandwiches in half on the diagonal and enjoy.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Play: Home alone

When I was a child, I prided myself on my long blond hair, which garnered me many compliments from smiling grown-ups and which my mother would threaten to cut off every morning as I screamed and cried with every little tug and snarl.

My mother promised me then that someday I would have a little girl who screamed and cried and threw a fit no matter how gentle I was as I brushed her hair and then I would understand. And, yes, here I am with not one but two little girls who scream and cry and kick and yell every morning when I brush their hair. 

The other day after my husband and I smirked at the long list of instructions that we would have to carry out to dogsit my parents' coddled Boston Terrier, my mother promised me that someday we, too, would have no children around and would devote ourselves similarly to a dog.  I rolled my eyes, but I know that she's probably right. Since becoming a mother, I haven't done well in my children's absence.

Officially, I want my children to be independent and brave and capable of thriving even when they are away from me.  I also like to think that my marriage is built around more than just our shared children, and that I can enjoy my husband's company even away from the children's presence.  I just haven't done a great job of acting on these convictions.

It's not that I haven't spent time away from my kids, it's that I haven't spent it wisely.  When Big E was a baby my husband and I longed so badly for a few childfree days that we actually booked a trip to Vegas for when she was 18 months old.  The anticipation of the trip was glorious. Imagining leisurely meals out and late nights that involved activities more glamorous than trying to quiet our sleep-averse daugher got us through months of temper tantrums and diaper changes.  By the time we had to leave her with my parents and board our plane, however, our little escape seemed less glamorous and more neglectful.  I spent our few days away so racked with guilt and longing for my daughter that I actually started lactating after a six-month hiatus. Perhaps the least glamorous I've ever felt.

This past weekend I proved that even six years after that miserably failed attempt, I'm still no good at appreciating my kid-free time. My in-laws were in town and on their second night here they offered to take the kids so that we could go out to dinner. I was more than happy to take them up on it but was itching to call and check in with them before we even made it through our entrees.  My husband helped me resist the urge to call, but when we ended letting them spend the night with my in-laws in their hotel room he couldn't keep me from wasting the rest of the night worrying that Big E would miss me and crying because Little E wouldn't miss me enough. It's possible that I should have skipped that second Stella at dinner.

The next morning my husband left early for a class he's taking and I had the house to myself.  I could have read a book, done some writing, started backing up all the photos on my computer like I've been meaning to; instead, I made elaborate lunches for the girls to bring to the beach that day and then I sat down, folded my hands in my lap and waited for them to get home.  Also, I berated myself for my complete inability to be a fully-functioning individual without my children by my side.

In a couple of weeks we'll be sending both girls off for a few of nights of camping in my parents' backyard. Those nights of freedom have been getting me through the screaming and tears that comes with brushing out two heads of beach-snarled hair. This time I swear I won't waste my child-free time.  I already have plans to clean and rearrange the girls room. . . which is probably not necessarily a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Work: Final Assessment

A co-worker has a cutesy wooden plaque in her classroom that is decorated with the red apples and proclaims the three best things about teaching to be June, July, and August. I hate its sorority-style dot letters and the sentiment feels crass, but I cannot deny that it's mostly true. Of all the great rewards of teaching, one of the greatest is that every year has a distinct end and plenty of time to reflect and prepare for the next beginning.

Usually at year's end I have a long list of things I feel I must accomplish before the next school year begins.  The list is usually daunting enough to paralytic and I rarely accomplish more than a few of the things that seem so important when school is still in.  This year feels different, probably because I spent 40 percent less time at work.

It is really hard to find fault with the part-time schedule that allows me to find myself enjoying this at 1:00 on a Wednesday during the school year:

And, yet, naturally I can find some fault with it.  For one thing, this is where I've been relegated as a trade-off for my choice to spend my afternoons on the beach: 



My desk is located not in a classroom decorated with the witty plaque of my choice but in a glorified supply closet surrounded by castoff overhead projectors and the toilet plungers that stood in as javelins at the freshman class Greek Day a few years ago. Every year in June, strange bugs breed in the fluorescent light fixtures in my little closet and then fall from the ceiling to the floor where they inevitably get turned on their backs and spin pathetically as they noisily beat their wings in vain attempts to right themselves.

There's probably a metaphor there, but I don't like to think about it.  I do know that much as I loved this year and hope that next year measures up, I did find myself frustrated at times.  Recently, I had a huge fight with my husband about fudgesicles, more specifically his lack of wonder and appreciation at the homemade fudgesicles I had dreamt up and prepared for the girls.  You see, when he walked in at the end of his workday to see me in the middle of a giant kitchen project he looked to me more wary than impressed or fascinated.  I took this to mean that he was either annoyed by my mess, bothered by my spending money that I wasn't earning on high end fudgesicle ingredients, disdainful of the level of idleness that would even prompt someone to undertake such an inconsequential project, or some combination of all of those. I now realize with some embarassment that I may have read a little too deeply into this.

After I had stewed in my anger at his response for a night and then railed at my baffled husband about it for several hours the next day, it occurred to me that my ghost-like status at work just might make me a little attention-hungry and praise-needy.  I also realized that not earning a full-time salary has caused me to feel unsteady in the balance of power in our household and in my relationship with my husband.

I'm working part-time again next year, and I'm still happy about that,but I recognize that in shedding the burdens and stresses of full-time work I also lose some of the sense of worth and purpose that I didn't even realize I was getting from it at the time. Right now I'm just focusing on June, July and August, but finding a way to avoid strife over frozen treats --even if they are homemade-- is definitely on the list for next year.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dream: The men who got us here

When we were young and first dating people sometimes mistook my husband and me for brother and sister. Once, some rarely seen relatives on my father's side even assumed my brother was my date because the family's New York Irish blood is so much more apparent in my freckled, Long Island-native husband than in my blond-haired, Massachusetts-born brother.

I suppose there is a passing physical resemblance, but if you looked at our childhood photos you'd never mistake us for siblings.  Where photographic evidence suggests my childhood was clothing-optional and love bead-mandatory, my husband was more often pictured wearing John-John Kennedyesque short suits.

I grew up in rural Massachusetts calling my parents by their first names.  My husband grew up in suburban Long Island calling his parents Mom and Dad and in the nearly 18 years since we first started dating, I could probably count on one hand the times I've heard my husband speak his parents' first names (and never to their faces).

A lot of these differences have to do with the men who raised us.  Where my father-in-law was in ROTC and served in Vietnam, my father, a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, skipped college and hitchhiked around the country.  My father-in-law smoked cigars; my father smoked, um, other things. My husband recently mentioned that when he was younger his father listened to the soundtrack of Les Miserable in his car.  My father took me to the first and second Lollapaloozas but left me home for the third because he and my brother agreed I'd be no good in the pit. When I was in high school my father embarrassed me with his penchant for black muscle shirts.  My husband suffered his father's inability to wear anything more casual than wrinkle-free khakis, shined loafers and madras shirts.  My father-in-law prides himself on his resemblance to John McCain (it's mostly in coloring and facial expression) and my father never fails to let me know when a stranger tells him how much he looks like Ron Perlman of Hellboy (google him and you'll have a close approximation of my father).

These differences have caused various tensions.  There was the time that my now husband and I treated both of our families to dinner the night before our college graduation. His parents sent back their entrees as they are wont to do and I could feel my mother, who waitressed for years when my brother and I were young, quietly fuming across the table. And while I love my father enough to make noises that simulate attentive listening when he lectures me over the phone about Obama's capitulation to Wall Street and weakness in the face of the Republicans, I did once --very politely, mind you-- hang up on my father-in-law's harangue about socialist healthcare and the end of democracy.  Also, I'm not overly proud of the way I occasionally tell my husband that he's being just like his father when what I really mean is incredibly unpleasant.

Still, on the occasion of Father's Day, it occurred to me that there is some overlap in the men who got us here.  For instance, they both made time for us despite taxing schedules.  My husband remembers his father driving through hours of traffic from his office in New Jersey to make it back to Long Island to watch him play soccer. When I was in high school, my father worked full-time heat treating metal blades by night and went to school full-time to finally earn his BA by day.  Not only did he drive me to school in the morning, but when I got my Learner's Permit he calmly took the passenger's seat as I ground through his gears the entire hourlong trip --and he was pretty good-natured on the day I finally burnt through the clutch and we sat stranded on the side of the road.

Both fathers wanted what they thought was best for us --even though it wasn't quite what we ended up with.  My father-in-law would have been very happy had his son ended up with a nice Catholic girl and a career in sales, whereas my father thought I should be whatever I wanted as long as I married a man with calloused, hardworking hands. Most importantly, though, they both stayed mostly out of the way when we wanted didn't match what they'd hoped.  My father-in-law was good-natured --outwardly, at least-- as he sat beneath the very unholy tent where we were married by the unmistakably secular Justice of the Peace.  My father, meanwhile, smiled proudly as he walked me down the aisle despite knowing full well that at the end waited a smooth-handed man who wore a tie each day to work.

In the end I think that it's these similar landmarks on our very separate paths that have led my husband and I to be fairly well synced in our approaches to parenting, despite the fact our own parents could scarcely be more different.  And as the girls and I feted my husband yesterday on Father's Day, I thought a lot about how he is giving of his time, committed to giving our kids the best and accepting of who they are. 

Mostly, though, I felt lucky that he was wearing neither madras nor a muscle-tee.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat: Crispy fish sandwich

I didn't eat a lot of fish growing up, but when my husband and I moved to a fishing city it seemed the thing to do, and I learned to love it.  I did not, however, learn to cook it. Fish has long been the last cooking frontier or me, the challenge I thought best left in the hands of the professionals.  Recently, though, I got bold.

This crispy, satisfying sandwich is easier and more foolproof than I would have anticipated and it fits the category of fast food made slow, though it's not that slow and I would never actually eat a fast food fish sandwich.  Also, my kids eat it, which is beyond shocking and ridiculously satisfying to me.

Crispy Fish Sandwich

For the fish:
2 flounder fillets
salt and pepper
1 cup of flour
1/2 cup of corn meal
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning (optional)
3 eggs
1/4 cups milk
2 cups panko
2 tablespoons of oil (olive, vegetable or canola work)

For the sandwiches:
4 sesame seed rolls
2 tablespoons of butter
lettuce (for sandwiches)
tomato slices
tartar sauce

Prepare the rolls first by heating butter in a non-stick pan, slicing rolls and then browning them in the butter.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, corn meal and seasoning in a shallow and in another shallow bowl whip together the eggs and milk.  Pour the panko onto a plate.

Cut the fillets in two, horizontally and season them with salt and pepper.  Dredge each piece in the flour mixture, dip in the egg and then coat with panko and set aside. 

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat and cook the fish three to four minutes per side.  You'll probably have two thicker slices and two thinner pieces; to make things easier, cook the fish in batches, first the thin pieces and then the thick. 

Allow the fish to drain on paper towels for a few minutes before assembling the sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Play: On princesses, pink and where I've gone wrong

A couple of Saturdays ago I brought Big E to a book signing.  The whole idea made me feel very literary and cultured and like an overall good mother. Until it didn't.

The PTA at Big E's school sponsored the reading by Victoria Kann, author of Pinkalicious (and the ensuing crop of -licious books: Purplicious, Goldilicious, and Silverlicious).  Big E, a devoted lover of all things pink, had liked the original enough to choose it as her birthday book donation to her kindergarten classroom the previous year. I thought that the story was kind of cute and the illustrations sort of charming, but mostly I liked it because Big E's insistence on pink everything had conditioned me to respond in Pavlovian fashion to the color (witness our pink dvd player and pink vacuum cleaner).

I honestly hadn't thought much about the pinkification of my daughter's and seemingly the nation's girlhood, until the morning of the book signing as I dried my hair with the hot pink blow dryer the girls had picked out for me.  That was when I got to chapter 3 in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I had been enjoying the book from a pleasant distance up to that point, as the earlier chapters focused primarily on the whole princess phenomenon that we have have blessedly been able to escape with little more than passing interest from Big E. On our recent trip, when a well-meaning Disney employee greeted  Little E with "Hello there, Princess," she glanced over her shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. I felt good about that.

I arrived at Kann's reading ruminating on Orenstein's assertion that "[pink] is such a tiny slice of the rainbow, and, though it may celebrate girlhood in one way, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls' identity to appearance."  So you can understand why I felt a little less literary, cultured and good motherish as I looked around at the roomful of little girls in pink tutus and fairy wings.  Big E, in t-shirt, denim skirt with subtle pink embellishment and pink Chuck Taylors, looked decidedly sedate; still, there were also Orenstein's points about the cunning use of pink as a marketing tool which made me cringe as I handed Big E a twenty so she could by a hardcover book to have signed after the reading.

I didn't find out either of my children's genders during my pregnancies. This meant that due to my obsessive preparations for my first born, Big E was dressed in and surrounded by a lot of yellow and green.  This might explain why I was so eager to embrace pink before she was even old enough to register a preference. I employed the wisdom I'd gained with Big E when Little E was born and bought very little before her arrival and brought both pink and blue going home outfits to the hospital, hoping to avoid the gender-neutral thing altogether. Ironically, her favorite color is red, though she does on occasion claim that she is getting older and will shortly start liking pink.

Back when Big E was a squalling, never sleeping, ambiguously dressed little bundle and I was a milky, sleep-deprived blob of hormonal mess, there was really no time to think about the long term repercussions of the color of her booties. It was all about survival. I had spent the months before her birth reading endless natural birth stories, eating copious amounts of chocolate pudding and shopping for things I thought babies needed (and which I would later learn they actually do not), like cotton balls, talcum powder and special babyproof q-tips.  There never was a convenient time, it seems, to develop a mission statement for motherhood.

I've had to develop my philosophy on the fly, and when I consider the thought that people like Orenstein have put into the whole thing I realize I've been derelict in my duties. Basically, I've assumed that if I can emphasize the importance of being kind and open-minded, helping those in need, trying your hardest, reading lots of books and getting plenty of exercise, the kids should turn out okay.  When I think about all of the messages they get besides mine, though, I realize that I really need to be a little more selective while I still can be.

Even though she's moved onto chapter books, Big E loved the reading.  She followed along in the copy of Silverlicious that I'd bought and I felt slightly victorious in knowing that I was one of the few mothers who had only purchased one of the four books in the series. Later that day, when she had a friend over after soccer I caught her showing off the new book, caressing the elaborately signed title page and calling it her "prized possession."

Her prized possession, at least for that day, was a book.  I may not have ended up feeling like a particularly great or enlightened mother, but I did manage literary.  That was something, at least.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Work: Breaking up is hard to do

Though I normally tune out when someone starts recounting a dream, I need to share one that I had a few nights ago.

I was at Little E's daycare waiting for some sort of student show to begin and I was angry.  The show, it seemed, was delayed and I was sitting cross-legged and sullen in a child-sized chair.  Head cocked, I glared at the center director and snapped my gum impatiently as she smiled politely and offered a continous stream of awkward apologies and acknowledgements of my patience, all while the rest of the parents squirmed in their little seats at the tension.  The dream ended when I stood up and announced that I would be heading out to the lobby to make a phone call --to our new daycare.

I didn't need an analyst to tell me that I was feeling anger toward the daycare; I'd spent enough of my waking hours stewing over the misunderstanding with Little E's registration for next year to be well aware of that.  I did think it was a neat trick of my subconscious, though, to bring together all of my personae in one room.

There was my crazy mom side, the one I keep in check almost always, the one who comes out primarily when I recount for my husband what I should have said in any number of situations.  In the gum cracking and cocked-head glaring was my inner bitchy 15-year-old, a version of me that I find myself in much closer touch with than many women my age simply because of my everyday proximity to a fair number of sullen teenagers. The director, though the object of my crazy self's rage, was also me in a sense, the teacher trying frantically to figure out what to say to mollify the seemingly irrationally angry parent. My polite and reasonable everyday self that works so hard to squelch the crazy mom side was present, too, in the form of the other parents in the room.

In thinking through my concerns about Little E's daycare, I've been feeling all awhirl as my various selves weigh in on how best to manage.  While crazy mom gets all feral at the first inkling that someone might be treating her baby unfairly, her more rational, albeit somewhat cynical counterpoint, the realistic teacher points out that Little E is not the only child in the daycare and not every parent request can honored nor can every child's needs be expressly catered to.  Still, the sulking teenager thinks the whole thing is so not fair, and is thoroughly pissed off at the director's power trip after we've been sending our kids there for six years now.  And while my reasonable everyday self grits her teeth at the shoddy treatment in the face of six years worth of tuition, she plasters on a tense smile because she knows that for now she still has to leave her kid with these people every day for the next couple of weeks.

Being a mother has been both a help and a hindrance at work; though I'm much more sympathetic and understanding than I was before I had kids, my commitment to the job is limited by my devotion to my family.  Similarly, being a teacher has both helped me in interacting with my daughters' teachers by giving me some insight as to their viewpoint, and it has also hurt at times when I've hesitated --sometimes at my kids' expense-- to be the difficult parent that I myself dread dealing with at work. 

In this case, reasonable me won out for the most part, though my teenage self was in evidence insofar as I chose to phone in my daycare breakup just as I did my high school breakup, though with much less name-calling and without a pre-written script and an audience of girlfriends urging me on.  I was pleasant but firm in explaining my decision to remove Little E from the program, and I only let crazy mom out when I reenacted for my husband what I would have said had Little E not been sitting right next to me when I called.

In all, I felt good about the way I handled it. Which is not to say that I can promise there won't any glaring or gum snapping when I go in to pick up Little E on her last day.
It's probably childish that I want to share this picture of Little E enjoying the superior playground at the new daycare with the director of her current daycare.  But would it really be a break up without a little pettiness?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dream: Everything will be okay. I promise. . .

Last Wednesday evening I called my parents as I do most nights, but I wasn't able to reach them.  I didn't think much of it until I caught the tail end of a news report about possible tornadoes in their area.  I started to worry.  I called again.  I called their cell phones.  I lost my temper with the children.  I called some more. I turned off the television.

Just before I slipped into hardcore panic, I remembered something: this was my parents, they have been making everything okay for me for 35 years and so they would be just fine. 

When I was pregnant with Big E, my obstetrician sent me for a thyroid ultrasound.  As I lay on a table looking not at happy, gray-black pictures of my growing baby but at ominous heat-sensitive images of large nodules in my neck, the technician pondered aloud, "I wonder how they treat cancer when you're pregnant?" 

Over and over, my husband tried to comfort me, to tell me that the ultrasound tech was wrong and that everything would be alright. Then and now, I loved him in a way my words cannot do justice and I cherished his support and efforts to cheer and console me; yet, I knew that he was human and so I argued that he, like me, had no way of knowing how things would turn out. He had never banished the monsters from my closet, so I wasn't able to stop shopping for my casket until my parents came and took us out for pancakes and told me that they just knew everything would be fine. As always, they were right.

The tornado, it turns out, bypassed my parents' town but devastated the entire area around them.  They called later that night after driving through the wreckage until they could find cellular service.  They came up the next day to babysit and enjoy our electricity and running water, as the storm had spared their property but left them in the dark ages.  While here, they pored over news reports and exclaimed over YouTube videos of buildings demolished along the route my father had driven home under black skies and pounding hail just minutes before the twister hit.  Everything was okay as always, but it almost wasn't.

The next night Big E asked me a lot of questions about tornadoes and how it was possible that they could happen in Massachusetts, and I tried to be matter of fact, pointing out the unlikelihood of another big tornado when the last major tornado in the state had been over 50 years ago. She kept asking and I knew she wanted to hear without equivocation that it would be okay, but I know I am human and so instead I hugged her and told her I loved her and pointed out that we have both a basement and the weather channel.

When she was still awake and teary at 10:00 p.m., I got into bed with her, kissed her forehead, stroked her hair and watched her drift into sleep as I whispered over and over, "Everything will be okay.  I promise."

Today when I went to pick her up at Daisy Scouts the woman next to me turned and asked whether this was the last meeting of the year.  When I told her yes, she laughed and loudly sighed, "Thank God!" Because I felt the exact same way but worried too much about Daisy-decorum to admit it so publicly, I liked her right away.  I noticed that she looked maybe a year or two older than me, that she had pretty skin, a cute haircut and an enviably white t-shirt.  Then I noticed that she had a bandage on her wrist covering two catheters that appeared to pierce her veins.

I tried to think of an innocuous explanation but came up short, and then another mother scurried over and asked her how she was in a way that told me the answer was not good.  The woman told her about her first week of chemo and its side effects and the arrangements she'd made to be sure her daughter was cared for during the treatments.  It all sounded very new and very scary and like one of my worst nightmares. 

I wondered if just before her diagnosis anyone had told her that everything would be alright, and I wondered if before she started her treatment she had promised her Daisy Scout it would all turn out just fine.  And I really, really hoped for both of them that everything really would be okay.