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.