Monday, February 28, 2011

Dream: On taking up space

As I touched the blue auto parts supply sign, our finish line, I was surprised not to see Big E waiting for me, as usual. I turned expecting her to come charging at me momentarily.  My heart sank when I spotted her half a rink away, cautiously skating along at the edge of the ice, her arms out for balance and her mouth twisted into anxious concentration.

This was all my fault.

Skating with Big E is one of my greatest pleasures. As much as I enjoy gliding around the rink myself, I love watching her do it even more.  Her confidence on the ice thrills me; the only time my responsible, rule-following girl does anything daredevilish is when she's on skates.

She's been taking lessons for a couple of years now and can not only twirl and do a few little hops, but stop and start and change direction on a dime.  This is what she was doing that morning as we raced around the rink.  Every other lap she gave me a head start but, as usual, darted past me before the finish line, ducking nimbly through the crowds of amateurs leaning on red training bars, waiting for me at the finish line with a grin.

I know the fun of circling the rink with your hair whipping behind you, your body warm from exertion, your face blasted with cold breeze, and that enjoyment is inarguably increased when everyone around you is teetering precariously on bent ankles.  This day, because it was during the vacation week, was particularly crowded and that crowd was especially wobbly. 

After I watched one particularly unsteady lady in gray sweatpants cast a long sour look at the whoosh of Big E as she glided by expertly on one foot, I began to fret.  What if Big E got in someone's way? What if her speedy darting caused sweatpants lady or someone like her to panic and stop short?  Surely sweatpants lady would fall, and certainly she would be angry, and she really did look exactly like the kind of woman who feels it her right and duty to scold strangers' kids in public.  Wouldn't this, ultimately, be all my fault?

So I pulled Little E aside at our finish line and I told her to relax a little, to make sure she stayed out of the way of all the sweatpants ladies and their red bar-clinging kids.  She cast down her eyes and agreed to be more careful. 

She was.  And I wished I'd never mentioned it.

I tend to apologize my way through life.  In the grocery store I smile sheepishly and offer sorry and excuse me to nearly everyone I pass.  Please excuse me for stopping my cart to pick up a box of Cheerios, if only I could have grabbed them on the fly so as to avoid delaying you for even a second.  So sorry for taking up space as I wait at the deli counter, for allowing my toe to stray into the path of your cart, for existing in such a way as to potentially inconvenience you, random stranger in the dairy aisle. 

I have noticed similar tendencies in my girls.  A few days before that morning at the rink we went to the science museum, also packed with school vacation crowds.  I watched as both girls suffered the quiet frustration of having more aggressive kids push in front and box them out at exhibit after exhibit.  As much as I encouraged them to do the same, I understood that their desire to step confidently to the front was foiled by their inability to defy the rules and manners they'd been drilled in at school and home. I had done this.

After Big E made a few more miserably polite passes around the rink, she told me she was done.  By then I'd come to a realization that I wish I could have had back when I was her age: the lady in the gray sweatpants did not likely regret her sub-par skating taking up space on the rink that could have been put to better use by my infinitely more proficient seven-year-old, so why should I have worried about Big E inconveniencing her?

Afterwards, I tried to undo my mistake.  Before we left the parking lot, I turned to the back seat and told her how much I loved to watch her skate, how proud I was of all the hard work she'd put into to honing her skills, and how wrong I'd been to tell her that she should worry about everyone else more than herself. 

She gave me a smile just devilish enough to give me hope that I hadn't done permanent damage.

I've possibly set back my attempts to raise considerate, well-mannered girls and have surely ensured more sour looks to come my way.  That's okay, though, because there's a lesson needs more attention: you are entitled to take up space in this world --without apology.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Eat: Squash and Black Bean Burritos with Cilantro-Lime Yogurt Sauce

Last week Little E wanted to try my orange and was shocked to find that she couldn't bite right into the skin as if it were an apple.  Big E told me that she'd like to become a "meatatarian."  Clearly a re-dedication to healthy eating was in order.

If only I knew what that meant.

As a kid, I thought anything on a salad bar was healthy.  Lettuce, tomatoes, baby corn on the cob, baco-bits, shredded cheese, Ranch dressing:  I considered them equally nutritious by virtue of their home under the sneeze guard.

By the time I was in high school, I had learned to fear fat.  A "healthy" lunch might include jelly beans and oyster crackers.  Also diet pills.

In college I realized that sugar was just as unhealthy as fat.  As such, I came to live on Snackwells devil's food cookies, which I now realize are probably just as lacking in nutritional value as their flavor-profile doppelganger, corrugated cardboard infused with chemicals.

After Big E was born I decided to "get healthy" (i.e. back in my jeans) on South Beach.  I bought the book and was a zealous convert until the morning I woke up shaking and dry heaving, barely able to lift Big E to nurse.  I weepily called my father, who had briefly joined me in my low-carb exploits.  "Put the baby in the carseat," he told me calmly, "get in the car and go to the Dunkin Donuts drive-through."  I scarfed down a bagel and a blueberry muffin right there in the parking lot and never looked back.

After Little E was born I counted Weight Watchers points online and found that I could achieve "healthy" weight loss on a diet of Wendy's hamburgers and Snicker's-flavored Kudos bars.

My plan this time around is simpler (and yet so much harder).  Once a week we'll eat a meal heavy on a variety of vegetables and whole grains and light on meat, eggs, dairy and pre-packaged foods.  With any luck, some of the dishes I prepare on this night will make it into our regular rotation and before long we'll be eating healthy full-time.

One of my early attempts was this burrito, which my husband and I loved for its unexpected, yet totally complementary flavor pairing. And which the girls greeted with the same shudder of horror I might have expected if I'd served them a plate of dog vomit. 

It's a process.  Right?

Black Bean and Squash Burritos with Cilantro-Lime Yogurt Sauce

for the burritos:

2-3 cups of cooked brown rice (more or less depending on how much you like in your burrito)
4 large whole wheat tortillas
1 25 oz. can of black beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed
1 poblano pepper (you may want more here, but the kids don't like spicy)
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cups chopped fresh baby spinach
3 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. of olive oil
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coriander

for the sauce:

8 oz. fat free Greek yogurt
juice of two limes
1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 450.

Make the sauce by whisking the yogurt, lime juice, cilantro and salt until smooth.

Toss the squash with one tablespoon of oil in a shallow baking dish and roast it for 20-25 minutes or until fork tender.

While the squash is cooking, fire-roast the poblano.  I did this on the stovetop by rinsing the pepper but not drying it, putting it on a metal skewer and holding it over the flame until its skin was evenly darkened and thoroughly blistered on all sides --kind of like roasting a marshmallow.  You could probably do the same under the broiler or on the grill.  Once it's roasted, let it sit until it's cool enough to handle.  At this point you can remove the skin by using a paper towel to gently rub it off.  Be sure to wash your hands when you're done.

While the pepper is cooling, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy skillet and saute the onions until they're softened.  Then, add the beans, water, cumin, coriander and allow the mixture to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally.

Cut open the (now skinless) poblano, remove all of its seeds and then dice it.

Heat up the rice, if necessary, prepare the tortillas as directed on the package, and wilt the spinach with 30 seconds in the microwave.

Fill each tortilla with rice, beans, squash, spinach, diced poblano and a sprinkling of cilantro (in whatever proportion pleases you), fold and serve with sauce.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Play: What happens in Weirs Beach

Nine years ago my husband and I spent our February vacation week in Las Vegas.  We dressed up, gambled unsuccessfully, ate in restaurants with no children's menu, drove a convertible to the Hoover Dam, and saw Tom Jones live in concert.

Yesterday we commemorated our long ago trip with a day at the Guinness-confirmed World's Largest Arcade in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire --sort of like a kiddy Vegas.  Actually, as it is in a part of New Hampshire that sorely lacks the glamour of Vegas, it's more a kiddy Reno. Maybe a kiddy Laughlin? 

The arcade was a two-hour drive north, only a day trip but completely outside of our realm.  As snowy mountains came into view and the road dipped down next to a frozen lake dotted with ice shanties, my husband remarked, "This is a real adventure." 

And in that instant he reframed the day for me.  What I had seen as a way to pass a winter Sunday, a trip to a glorified Chuck E. Cheese, was lit with the spark of the unknown.  I love adventures, the novelty, the possibility, the discovery, and suddenly this was one.

The arcade, like Vegas, was a lot of bad carpet, dimly-lit rooms and people with cups full of change shuffling around glassy-eyed.  The girls and I left my husband in a dark upstairs room filled with towering rows of classic arcade games and blaring Boy George.  In this room, which intimidated me just as much as those roped-off areas in Vegas where high rollers play inscrutable games like Baccarat, my husband passed some time with Ms. Pac Man and recorded the high score on Galaxian.

Instead of spending the night blowing our cash at video blackjack in hopes of scoring a few free Heinekens, the girls and I spent the afternoon dropping $20 winning the tickets that we traded in for two ring pops at the end of the day.  Rather than spinning around on a thrillride 1000 feet above the Strip, my husband and I watched the girls take turns on mini ferris wheel that lifted them at least 5 feet.

On the way home, we did not have kobe beef carpaccio for dinner.  Instead my husband made a quick turn in to a strip mall "diner" with a rusted pink Cadillac for an awning, and before I could question the cleanliness or the menu he reminded me meaningfully, "This is an adventure."  The sides featured cottage cheese, mashed turnips and pickled beets and every plate came adorned with a frill of kale and an orange slice, and save for the newborn that the elderly hostess was cradling we were the youngest people there by 30 years.  We had breakfast for dinner and it was delicious.

Before we had kids our exploits used to go well beyond Vegas: snorkeling in foreign waters, flying off to Europe, bargaining with street vendors, navigating public transportation without the benefit of understanding even the alphabet in which our directions were written, riding a tuk-tuk through crowded Bangkok streets, riding an elephant through a Balinese forest.  I loved these trips, loved the thrill of stepping off the plane and breathing in the air of a place that I'd never been before and where I knew not a soul.

There are days when I really, really miss the grand scale of our old adventures.  But yesterday was not one of those days.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Work: And now I know...

I have been a teacher for ten years now, and in that time I have attended many special education meetings for my students, so many, in fact, that I assumed that I knew pretty much all there was to know: the jargon, the protocol, the flow charts. 

And then I found myself on the other side of the conference table.

Two weeks ago my husband and I sat in a special education meeting for Little E, the result of an evaluation she'd had with the school district's occupational therapist after her pre-school teachers had echoed my own concerns about her fine motor skills. 

I knew from my time on that side of the table that the people who sat across from me were professionals there to do their jobs, which, ultimately, was to help my child. Still, I couldn't ignore the fact that they were also there to tell me that she was decidedly flawed; worse, I was there to agree with them. 

Committing this betrayal while my daughter played happily at home filled me with a gnawing guilt.  This feeling was compounded not only by my mental list of the ways I'd already failed my child (pacifier, bottle, overzealous swaddling, liberal TV policy, extended period of denial), but also by my understanding that every day mothers cared for grown children with the needs of infants, slept on cots in their children's hospital rooms and birthed babies who would never take a breath. I was pretty sure that all of them handled their circumstances with more grace than I'd managed upon learning that my daughter was really not good at coloring.

Yet I doubt any of this internal mess was visible from the other side.  I knew my role in this meeting: small talk about the weather, conscientious note-taking, studious head-tilting and clarifying questions.

The occupational therapist who had evaluated Little E read from her report.  I knew from having been there that the people on the clean and clinical side of the table could separate the challenge from the child.  The fine motor delays that the evaluation had revealed were simply a problem to be solved and we were there to determine the best course of action.  But from my side, the view was a little hazier and the distinction not quite as simple.

Since the day of the evaluation when I'd sat at that very same conference table and watched my daughter, grim-faced with determination, fail to color properly, to cut with scissors properly, to form a letter, lace a card or trace a line properly, I had struggled with a measure of grief.  I wasn't exactly grieving for Little E, who was still the same sweet and silly, delightful and exasperating girl she had been before that day.  I grieved more for the fact that so early I had to retire the notion that she would travel the clear path I had imagined for both my daughters.  I grieved for knowing from experience that in school achievement is measured with pencil and paper, that preparation for standardized tests starts in kindergarten, and that none of this would come as easily to her as I wanted it to.

As the meeting neared its end, the chairwoman turned to the flow chart that is used to determine a child's eligibility for services.  From sitting so many times on the other side of the table, I knew that this was a matter of legality, of filling out paperwork and applying the appropriate jargon so as to get on with the real work of fixing problems and helping children.  She read aloud:  Is there a disability? Yes.  What type? Physical.  I felt my husband's hand on my knee.  My breath stuck in my throat, my stomach lurched, my head swam.

And I knew then that this was more than words and paper, jargon and protocol.  I knew then that despite my ten years on the other side of the table, there was a whole lot that I didn't know.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dream: My Valentine

"Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean   
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.   
Two joined abeyances become a term   
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean."

When I met my husband, just about sixteen years ago this day, my interest was piqued by three things: he buttoned his barn jacket all the way to the top (because at the time this seemed rather daring), he had a nearly endless collection of J. Crew flannels (because I was pretty shallow --even for a college freshman), and he was purported to be a bit of a jerk (because who doesn't like a challenge?).

These days, the barn jacket and flannels are long gone and the jerkiness only occasional (though far less alluring than it once was), and yet I still keep him on.  Some of my reasons for this are shallow: watching him score a goal in a Sunday morning soccer game makes me want to wear his letter jacket.  Others are practical:  I am not an ironer and he refuses to let me leave the house wrinkled. 

Most important, though, is that he is the solid other half of my arch, though I probably do more than my fair share of leaning.  Just last week when I thought that I'd lost my keys at the grocery store, he not only left work immediately to drive 30 minutes and bring me a spare, but when he found the missing keys in my pocket book (the one I'd been carrying with me the entire time I was frantically searching the parking lot snowbanks), he refrained from eye-rolling and even held me there in the parking lot and asked if I was okay.

I love you, Valentine.  There's no one I'd rather lean on than you.
(photo of University of Richmond arch borrowed from bookwyrmm on Flickr)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Eat: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, with love

Valentine's Day is coming, so I wanted to share an appropriate recipe, some edible version of sparkly hearts and long stemmed red roses.  Something romantic. Something sexy.  And I came up with...absolutely nothing.

Then I thought about these cookies.  I have made them countless times over the years, and they are neither romantic nor sexy.  They are better than that.

These are the cookies that I make when one of the girls needs some extra mothering or when my husband has been shouldering more than his fair share of my ire.  I've also been known to come home after a rough day and weepingly make a batch of these for myself.  When a good friend was dealing with a difficult pregnancy in a far away new town, I mailed her a box.  When my aunt died of a cancer that was never supposed to take her, I woke up early the next morning and baked a double-batch for my uncle and cousins.

Soft and comforting, layered with sweetness, these cookies are better than hearts and roses.  They are a hug in a box, love on a baking sheet.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 cups of  unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of unsalted butter (at room temperature)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs (at room temperature)
2 1/2 cups of old fashioned oats
1 cup of sweetened shredded coconut
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chunks
3/4 cup of Heath Bar bits

  • Preheat the oven to 350 and cover cookie sheets with parchment or foil.

  • Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium size bowl and set aside.

  • Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy.  A stand mixer is your best bet, as the better gets pretty thick, but a hand mixer will work if you use a large bowl.

  • Mix in the vanilla and eggs.

  • Add the flour mixture and beat until just combined.

  • Add the oats and coconut and mix until just combined.  (If you are using a hand mixer, you may want to do this part gradually.)

  • Add the chocolate chunks and and Heath Bar bits and mix until just combined.

  • Use a standard ice cream scoop or measuring cup to drop batter by the quarter cup onto the prepared cookie sheets.

  • Bake until just golden brown, about 16 minutes.

  • Allow the cookies to sit for five minutes on the cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Play: A love letter to Ikea

When I woke on Saturday morning, I was confronted by a week's worth of untouched mess and clutter and the nagging sense that I had definitely missed some vomit in one of the many middle of the night emergency cleaning efforts I'd conducted as a result of the stomach flu that swept through the house last week. 

I had, in fact, spent much of the week searching out errant puke, along with working, shoveling and feeling not quite so achy, nauseated and awful that I could justify staying in bed, but enough so that I wished everyday that I had.  So, yearning to be held in strong, competent hands and convinced of the curative powers of Swedish hospitality, I popped an ibuprofen, packed up the girls and headed an hour south to Ikea.

I wondered on the way down whether I were delirious.  Normally, I would consider a shopping trip of this magnitude  --long drive, sprawling furniture mecca-- a full family affair, but with my husband stilll suffering through the thick of the illness, I was on my own.  I'd badgered promises of best behavior from both girls, but I was skeptical.

Oh, Ikea, how ever could I have doubted you?

As we ascended the escalator to the showroom floor, our pockets stuffed with free golf pencils, I felt the burdens of a long, dark winter slip away.  How could I not find hope in a place that so aptly demonstrates how fabulously one can live in less than 600 square feet?  There is something miraculous about furniture so capacious as to conceal all evidence of the clutter of human occupation and yet so compact as to come in a box that fits in the back of my car.

Comforting, too, is Ikea's universality.  The bunkbed that delights the girls on our jaunt through the showroom probably does the same for little girls in Paramus and Paris.  I get just as much pleasure now knowing that while they're at the Jersey Shore Ronnie and Sammie sleep in beds that match my Ikea Malm dressers and nighstand, as I did ten years ago on recognizing my own Ikea cafe table in an actual cafe in Budapest.

By the time we were enjoying our reasonably priced lunch in the restaurant, it was easy to pretend that we had somehow escaped dismal, snow-battered Massachusetts and found ourselves in happy, efficient Stockholm.  I was so absorbed by the fantasy that I twice left the girls alone at the table while I went for napkins and utensils.  I might hesitate to do this in the mall food court but couldn't imagine how anything bad could happen there where wheeled carts are provided for maneuvering heavy trays and tastefully designed signs pleasantly explain the personal benefits to bussing your own table.

However, because the Ikea shopping experience is sometimes more satisfying than the owning experience, there was also the matter of replacing the mid-beam of our bed, broken by the girls' over-zealous jumping. 
Browsing the showroom, eating in the restaurant, shopping in the marketplace: sure, these were delightful, but the self-serve warehouse was where I feared our whole trip might fall apart.

Again, my doubt was unfounded.

The lyrically named Skorva was in plentiful stock, light enough to carry under my arm, packed for easy travel, and about $40 cheaper than I had imagined.  After we'd stocked up on Swedish snacks for the ride home, an automated ramp called a "Travelator" bore us gently back to earth, cart and all.

Thank you, Ikea.  I needed that.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Work: Useless time sucks for wasted days

In the January issue of Real Simple magazine, there was an extensive list of "mini chores" that the editors suggested you could use to occupy a spare five minutes for "that juicy accomplishment buzz."  These tasks included things like tossing three old items from your fridge, dusting your houseplants, and creating an emergency kit with bottled water, flashlight and canned goods.

With all of the snow days we've had lately, I've had enough free time to alphabetize the contents of the refrigerator and grow houseplants from seed. However, the fact that I still own a magazine that I bought out of desperation a month ago for a flight that I didn't actually get to take, suggests that I'm not mini chore-oriented (especially since one item on the list instructs the reader to eliminate half of her magazine stack). 

You, on the other hand, may be the kind of hyper-efficient gal who spends her last free five minutes zipping around the house with a small can of white paint, making touch-ups as needed, per the list.  If so, you don't need Real Simple; you need to relax. Allow me to be of service with these useless time sucks, gleaned from my most recent snow day:

  • Make elaborate plans and execute them poorly.  You might, for example, promise your children that you'll make homemade playdoh, though you actually have no expertise in this area.  Use an untested recipe from the Internet, so as to avoid success in your endeavor.  Attempt to salvage the sticky mess that results by baking their haphazard creations into a hot blobby mess.  Voila! You've created both a mess and more clutter.

  • Plan an unfeasible escape.  If you are like me, your vacation budget is minimal at best.  This should not stop you from shopping airfares to Bali.  Do exhaustive research: plan outings, compare villas, deliberate over whether you should rent a car or just hire a driver.  Most importantly, convince yourself that you not only deserve this trip, you practically require it.  Consider it a medical necessity, as you are clearly vitamin D deficient. Have faith that your sense of entitlement alone will pay the bill.

  • Build resentments.  I find that winter in New England is the perfect setting for this, but I suppose it could work elsewhere.  My method: find someone from a climate less punishing than your own (if you're in my neck of the woods, this includes pretty much everyone but the Inuits), notice how much happier/healthier/all-around better he or she looks than you.  Look at your own see-through-living-under-a-log skin and squishy middle.  Think about how much easier it would be to look as good as Mr./Ms. Rosy Glow if you had access to some decent produce or had been able to leave the house in the past couple of months.  Direct your anger at him or her.  (Helpful hint: You could do this with a copy of People, but I like to personalize it by fixating on the Facebook friend who keeps posting radiant shots of her healthy active life in Florida.  Like I don't know that she has totally capped her teeth since high school...cheater.)

  • Compile a list of grievances.  The resentments that you've constructed in the previous exercise are a great segue here.  The fact that my only outdoor activity is digging a dog latrine in snow higher than my knees while others are providing photographic evidence of frolicking in shorts --that makes the list. You should also think about any naggingly incomplete home repairs, recent failures or disappointments, mistreatment at the hands of co-workers and/or service staff... Make sure you don't leave anything out.  You want an accurate catalogue of the bleakness that is your life.

  • Ponder your failures.  Here's an example: After grimly digging a giant dog toilet in the backyard, I make hot chocolate for the girls.  Little E dissolves in sobs and recriminations, because, apparently, she doesn't care for the mug I've chosen.  Big E repeatedly points out to me that Little E has just said "hate," which, in case I have forgotten, she is not to say.  Clearly, as their mother, I am responsible for these foibles in my offspring.  I think about all the ways that I've failed them and try to decide which of these spawned these particular behaviors.  To kill some more time, I fret about how these little quirks will present themselves in adulthood.

  • Lament your wasted time. There's little sense in frittering away a day if you're not going to spend some time mentally berating yourself for your lack of productivity.  Think of all of the things you could have accomplished with this time.  Look around at the mess in your house, but don't pick it up.  Instead, spend the remaining time asking yourself why you are so profoundly lazy, resenting those responsible for the mess or anyone else who has failed to address it, and amending your anguish over the enormous pigsty that your home has become to your list of grievances. 
If, when you've completed these steps, you find that you still have some time on your hands, get online and consult the long-term forecast to see when you can expect the next wasted snow day.  If you're anywhere near me, it shouldn't be a long wait. So maybe you should get on that emergency kit.