Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Michael Stipe my kids' Brian Wilson?

Last night while driving home with the kids in the car, a little-known R.E.M. song [Carnival of Sorts (boxcar)] came on the satelite radio. Before I had a chance to turn up the volume, A. exclaimed from the backseat "I like this song, Mommy." S. chimed in that she did too. How that warmed my heart.

As those of you who know me in real life probably know, R.E.M. is my favorite band. I've even engaged on road trips to see the band on tour, including one quite memorable show in Atlantic City on Halloween (when I was 5 months pregnant) and another at Jones Beach this last summer during a nasty thunderstorm.

I started to think about how our parents' music preferences influence our own as well as when the two paths diverge. I grew up with a lot of 50s and 60s eras oldies, heavy on the Beach Boys, as well as late 70s and early 80s pop hits. My first in-person concert was Cher (accompanied by my father - pretty frightening in retrospect) followed by a Beach Boys/Chicago double-header. Both of these were in junior high. At the time, I though this music was the best out there. Then came high school.

One of the first tapes I bought after entering high school, at a friend's suggestion, was Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes. In the car on the way home, my dad offered to play it for us. Needless to say, halfway in to the first verse of "Blister in the Sun" (right around "body and beats I stain my sheets"), Dad ejected the tape and said "are you sure that's the kind of music you want to be listening to?" To my dad's credit, when I replied in the affirmative, he kept his mouth shut. From then on, there has been very little overlap in our music of choice.

I still really like the Beach Boys - Pet Sounds makes a rotation on our playlist - but most of the rest of what my parents listen to makes my skin crawl (can you say Fleetwood Mac?). I like to think that D. and I have more progressive music preferences than my parents, but I'm sure the day will come when S and A will ask me to change the music when R.E.M. comes on in the car.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


My dad's mother died five years ago today. Walking home from work the other day, I got tears in my eyes as I thought about her and what she meant to me. Which was strange, because I don't remember crying when she died.

Other than the anniversary of her death, it was this year's political atmosphere that made me think of Grandmommy the other day. If she was here, Grandmommy would be one of those grey-haired old ladies out supporting her candidate with all of her might.

Grandmommy was one of the smartest women I've ever known. Had her life taken a different path, I could easily see her as a college professor or civil activist. As it was, she grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father in Baltimore, MD, and got married at age 16 to my grandfather who was nine years her senior. She never went to college, nor do I think she even graduated from high school Her first child, my aunt, was born when Grandmommy was 20; my father arrived four years later. She worked for my grandfather's engineering company, was very active in her church, loved knitting, played a mean game of bridge, and was an avid crossword puzzler. She always lectured us that there was no such thing as a "healthy tan" (words I wish I'd listened to). An avid supporter of women's rights in general, she needled my conservative father each year by sending a contribution to NOW in his honor. She was a voracious reader (late in life she limited herself only to female authors) and encouraged all five of her grandchildren in our academic endeavours.

Grandmommy wasn't the coddling/spoiling/cookie baking type of grandmother. She had a temper and could be moody. And Grandmommy always spoke her mind. After dinner when the kitchen was cleaned up, she would announce that the kitchen was closed. Too bad if you wanted a snack. Another of her favorite sayings was "no roughousing in the living room." She had no patience for petulance and one infamous time told my younger sister than children should be seen and not heard (my sister was in college at the time).

All of that being said, there was never a doubt in my mind that Grandmommy loved all of us unconditionally. If she had a favorite among us, she never showed it. She always made time for us, and there were dozens of things both big and small that she did to make us feel special. We visited my grandparents for a few weeks each summer and there were so many things we looked forward to that, looking back, were all Grandmommy's doing. She always had popsicles and dill pickles (my favorite) when we came to visit. She baked - and later taught me to bake - rhubarb crisp. She and my grandfather bravely took my sister and me on a cross-country trip to see my aunt's family when we were just in elementary school. When I was accepted to college, she sent me a dozen long stem roses in honor of the achievement.

Our relationship really grew once I was out of high school. At that point, she and I connected as adults, which was much more her speed. I visited her a number of times by myself in these early adult years, and our conversations really helped me figure out who I was as a person. She didn't like my college boyfriend because he didn't call his mother when he was at school (and she was right). She adored my husband from the moment she met him (and she was absolutely right, though I didn't need her to tell me). She was one of the happiest people at our wedding.

After supporting her ailing mother through many years in a nursing home - an excruciatingly slow deterioration of mental and physical abilities - and caring for my grandfather as his health declined over many years due to poorly managed diabetes, Grandmommy resolved to not leave the world in similar fashion. She was a supporter of Dr. Kevorkian's methods and always thought it was strange that people think it is humane to put animals to sleep to ease their suffering but don't feel the same about other human beings.

Ultimately, Grandmommy didn't have to resort to any drastic measures. After suffering excruciating back pain for a number of months, she consented to an MRI (she was claustrophobic and had avoided this test). It turned out that the cause of the pain was metastases from advanced lung cancer. She asked for only palliative care and died three days later. I think she had a deal with the man - or as she would claim, the woman - upstairs.

I miss her.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Solving the What's for Dinner Dilemma

Last month, I joined a friend for our first trip to one of those "we prep, you assemble, we clean, you freeze and cook later" meal places. I think we were the last two working mothers in the world to try this place. I'd thought about it many times, but when I looked at the meal options, I was underwhelmed. More accurately, I always thought "but I could make that myself at home for a lot less than $20/meal." Following a fairly miserable week where "what's for dinner" became an emotionally charged question, I decided to try this option to fill in the gaps between home-cooked balanced meal and frozen pizza.

Overall, I was fairly satisfied and I learned a lot. I learned what kinds of meals to take advantage of in this format (think lots of ingredients, lots of steps) and what kind really don't save you any time (think large cut of meat, frozen with a marinade, to be prepared in a crock pot). I also learned some handy shortcuts (Need to bread chicken? use resealable bags instead of three separate dishes. Put the chicken in the bag with a bit of flour. Seal and shake. Add the egg. Seal and shake. Add the bread crumb mixture. Seal and shake. Sweet.) I also learned that I can do this myself, for much less money, with a bit of planning.

So, in order to help others out there with the "what's for dinner dilemma," I thought I'd periodically offer recipes that I've had good success making in advance (or making twice as much as we'd need for dinner), freezing, and serving at a later date. Please share any tips or recipes you may have as well. I just borrowed this book from the library and hope to find some additional inspiration from it.

For the first recipe in this series, I thought I'd share a family favorite, particularly this time of year. I've adapted the original recipe from Cooking Light to make it easier. This makes a ton. It's a fast weeknight meal and the leftovers freeze beautifully - just cool, put in a freezer-safe ziploc bag, and when you're ready to eat either defrost and bake in a casserole dish or heat in a large pan on the stovetop.

Chicken with Roasted Pears and Wild Rice

2½ cups uncooked specialty wild rice blend (without any spices; you can often find this in the bulk grain section)
2½ cups apple juice
2½ cups low-salt chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds cooked, skinned, boned chicken breasts OR the meat from a store-bought rotisserie chicken cut into bite-sized pieces
4 small firm ripe Bosc pears (about 1½ pounds), cored and chopped in to bite-size pieces
1 cup dried cranberries or dried tart cherries
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover large jelly roll pan with nonstick aluminum foil and place pears on pan. Put in oven for 20-25 minutes (until pears soften slightly).

While pears are baking, combine rice, apple juice, and chicken broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until liquid is almost entirely absorbed.

Combine rice mixture, chicken mixture, pears, cranberries, sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Toss gently.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When Did Halloween Become A Season?

I'm not sure what the Halloween equivalent of Scrooge is, but I'm slowly turning in to it.

Growing up (back in the dark ages, i.e. the late '70s/early '80s), Halloween was on October 31st. The night before we would carve our pumpkins. On Halloween proper, we went to school in our usual clothes, came home and ate dinner. Only after all of that did we put on our costumes and head out in to the neighborhood with our plastic orange jack o' lantern buckets to trick or treat.

Somehow in the past 25 or so years, Halloween has morphed from an evening into a month-long costume/witch/ghost/candy corn extravaganza. There were no fewer than 3 Halloween events we could have gone to yesterday in our neighborhood alone. While I appreciate that this fosters a sense of community, it seems to be spiraling out of control. I get the ubiquitous "Fall Festival" - that works for me - but Halloween events 2+ weeks prior to October 31st just aren't right.

Why is this? Do people really enjoy dressing up in costume that much? Or is it more of a compensation for the fact that so many of the traditional December holiday celebrations have been scaled-back due to political correctness? I know Halloween is a Big Time Holiday for many (including a dear friend of mine who puts on a phenomenal party for the occasion each year - we miss you, A!), but it's gone too far.

I know of more than one friend who has had to acquire a second costume for his/her child because the first one is already worn out from use this year. Are you kidding me? I've always had trouble coming up with just one. (Allow me an aside to describe my all-time favorite Halloween costume: Fourth grade, Cindy Lauper, complete with the spray-colored hair, Mr T-like necklaces, and mismatched tiered flowing skirt. Too bad for you I can't find a picture. Of course, D's favorite Halloween costume of mine was the skin-tight tiger print getup I had one year when we were dating. But I digress.)

I'm not to the point where I'm totally down on Halloween - my kids have costumes, I've already bought the candy (Snickers and Skittles, just in case we're "stuck" with leftovers), and we made the journey out to the pumpkin patch last week to pick out two orange orbs for jack o' lanterns. On Friday, S&A will be dressed up in their Halloween best, ready to go and ply pounds of refined sugar from friendly neighbors. I just feel like some of the fun and magic gets lost when the celebration is carried on too long.

ETA: I just saw Kate's Halloween post as I finished writing this one - glad I'm not the only one!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

So, Back To My First Grade Teacher

Mrs. Poland couldn't help that she was a bitch.

For years and years (possibly centuries), Mrs. Poland specialized in teaching first graders who needed extra help and attention - students who hasn't quite learned how to read or who struggled with early math skills. In one of the great misguided social experiments conducted by schools in the late 70s/early 80s, the powers that be thought it would be beneficial to take Mrs. Poland out of her comfort zone for the 1981/82 school year and saddle her with a group of gifted and talented students. Boy was that a mistake.

I was part of this smarty posse. The other characters were: Sarah, Dana, Brian, and Chris. All of us tested well above our grade level in reading and math and were generally an extremely precocious bunch.

Sarah was my first best friend and a gifted dancer with a flair for the arts. Dana was a practical, yet fun, playmate. Brian was ADHD when it was called "hyperactive" (maybe it had something to do with the fact that his breakfast typically consisted of Pop Tarts and Pepsi). Chris was my nemesis. I was the bookworm of the crowd, reading at a 6th grade level. Every day during reading circle, I was sent to the Principal's office to teach myself how to type. Boy is that coming in handy now.

Mrs. Poland had no idea what to do with us. She ridiculed us for knowing all of the answers and chastised us for speaking up to help others who didn't. We were confident, spirited and, yes, sometimes a bit sassy. One time Chris and I got in to a huge fight about whether or not we'd be alive in the year 2000. I argued that of course we would - we'd only be 25-years-old. Chris argued that we could die before then. Mrs. Poland took his side. (I think a first-grade teacher taking the side of death over optimism that a 6-year-old will live to age 25 is a pretty bitchy thing in and of itself.)

In retrospect, Mrs. Poland may have been one of the nicest people in the school. She may have just been trying to look out for the others in class who didn't know it all but her way of doing it made us feel like pariahs. No one had given her the skills to deal with a bunch of Type A brainiacs, and it didn't do any of us - or Mrs. Poland - any favors.

If I remember correctly, the order of the first grade universe was restored the following year, and the five of us were blessedly placed with a second-grade teacher who knew how to keep us under control and challenged in a positive way.

I wish I knew what happened to my friends from back then - I moved into a different school district before third grade. Through the miracle of magnet school education, Dana, Brian and I met back up in high school. Last I heard, Sarah spent a number of years working for a London theater company before moving to NYC. I haven't heard a word about Chris in over 25 years, but I hope he got to see the year 2000.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Sixth of the Sixth

Many thanks to PsychMamma for tagging me for my first meme. You're to select the sixth photo in your sixth album and post it along with the backstory. Here's mine:

It's A's 2nd birthday and he's opening his birthday card from Sra., his nanny. Sra. has been with us since S. was 3-months-old and she is a true blessing in our lives. I have joked many times that she takes better care of my children than I do. She has unlimited patience with them and has always gone out of her way to make sure they are happy, but disciplined, children. I think she occasionally bribes them with candy, but who am I to judge (as my children sit watching Noggin while I type)? In general, Sra. doesn't spoil S&A, but birthdays and Christmas are exceptions. She always comes through with The Present. For S's first birthday it was a Dora car, for her second it was the Dora bike. For A's birthday this year, it was a motorized toy 4x4.

Now I get to tag six of you to participate (if you'd like):

A Mom Two Boys, The Big Piece of Cake, Jill, Elizabeth, Amy, and Quart (you'll have to start a blog first!)

Monday, October 13, 2008

What Happened to Pin The Tail On the Donkey?

It was just about a year ago that our family first stepped in to the world of over-the-top birthday parties for children. S. was invited to an ice skating party to celebrate the 4th birthday of one of her playmates. We showed up at the outdoor rink and there was Starbucks hot chocolate for all of the children and coffee for the adults. Skate rentals, rink time, and a skating lesson were all included. As if that wasn't enough, following an hour of so of skating, the entire troupe walked over to Noodles & Company for dinner and cake. All of this was generously provided by the birthday girl's parents. Which was really a bit awkward as we had never met them before. I felt like I should send a thank you note and flowers. At the very least, I should have spent more than $15 on the present.

All of this came back to me yesterday following a birthday party double-header for our family. First up was our neighbors' annual birthday party for their daughter who was turning three. As in previous years, there was a fantastic spread of homemade cuban food. And a moonbounce. This year, in addition, there was a surprise appearance by Minnie Mouse (the details of which I will save for another day). The guest list was modest, which was a nice contrast to the next party.

The next party was for a "nanny posse" playmate of S and A's, a nice girl with, um, interesting parents. In addition to having their daughter's entire preschool class and family friends (total: 25 adults, 400 children under age 4), they had as the headliner for their party this guy. To his credit, he kept the kids absolutely in stitches for 30 minutes. But $300 (or more) for some guy just acting goofy? Wow. Nice work if you can get it.

I don't mean to sound like an ungracious guest. I really do appreciate the wide circle of friends S. and A. have and the associated parents with whom we've become friends over the past 3+ years through preschool and the playground (in addition to the network our nanny has built with other neighborhood nannies). But when did it become necessary to shell out many hundreds of dollars for a preschooler's birthday party? Am I considered a bad host for having birthday parties that consist of a craft (this year it was making "crowns" out of posterboard decorated with crayons/markers/stickers we have in our everyday craft kit), snacks, cake and a pinata?

(Please don't get me started on "goodie bags." This year for A's party I just bought Baskin Robins gift certificates and boxes of crayons.)

D.'s observation on all of this is that the one requirement he has for all future parties for our children is beer for the grownups.

What are your best/worst birthday party experiences and how do you manage the expectations(both socially and those of your children) for your own parties? (Bonus points for any good ideas for keeping preschoolers entertained without tapping their college funds.) I recently came across this article that made me wonder if retro birthday parties might be a new trend. It would be one that I would welcome with open arms.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Put Down The Credit Card And Back Away Slowly

I'm on a diet. No, not a food diet, a financial diet.

I'm that person who goes in to Costco to buy milk, orange juice, paper towels and chicken breasts and ends up spending $250 and then wonders where our discretionary money goes each month.

Oh, yes, I can sanely justify it all: I needed that photo paper ($30), oh, and of course scissors ($10 for four pairs - what a deal!) to cut the photo paper into the necessary frame sizes. The truffle cheesecakes ($15 each) - freshly made in NJ and only available this weekend! - were to die for and I needed a dessert that day and another would be perfect for when I host Christmas dinner. And the pajamas for the kids (3 @ $9 each) - it is getting cold and won't they be so cozy in fleece? The 2-pack umbrellas (3 @ $20 each) will make great Christmas presents for my parents and in-laws (plus a set for us). The bound collection of Pixar stories will be a perfect accompaniment to the DVD box set the kids are receiving from their grandparents for Christmas. And finally, the fall arrangement ($12) of pumpkins and gourds will look lovely on my mother-in-law's table.

The problem? I do this every single time I am in Costco. Or Target. Or shopping online (how convenient that the Gap company now allows you to shop from Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Piper Lime all in one spot!). I have my credit card memorized from so many online purchases. Yes, the three-digit security code, too.

Maybe I don't need a diet as much as I need a 12-step program.

As you can probably tell, I am the spender in the family. D's spending is guided by two questions: "Do I need it?" and "Do I need it now?" I think the last thing he purchased was a hammer. While we represent the two extremes, his is definitely the wiser method.

That last trip to Costco was the wakeup call for me. When I couldn't even remember all of the items on which I'd spent our hard earned monday, I realized something had to change. This had to stop and it was going to take more that me "trying" to really change my spending habits. So, I have made a pledge not to shop for the rest of the month. No Costco, no Target, no online purchases. I'm not even going to the grocery store. Obviously this puts the burden of providing sustinance and supplies on D., but he's happy to go along with the plan (provided I give him detailed lists).

After three days, it's actually been harder than I thought. The online temptations are powerful and enhanced by all of the promotions retailers are sending out in light of the current economic situation. But it's been a good challenge so far and will hopefully only get better. I'll check back in at the end of the month to let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Introductions (Sort Of) and A Selection From The Archives

I should probably back up a step here and tell you about about two of the players you'll encounter here from time-to-time.

While I am a blogger who happens to be a mother, I do not see myself as a "mommy blogger" per se. That being said, I will certainly have posts that involve my children so here they are:

S, 3 1/2, is a spirited girl, in both the positive and challenging ways. In spite of my best efforts, she is discovering princesses and her favorite colors are pink and purple.

S's little brother, A (age 2), is all boy. This child hasn't found a sport he doesn't love nor has he found an elevated surface from which he won't jump.

Though I'm happily married, thank you very much, my husband won't come up here except in a very minor role. My marriage is the one topic that is completely off limits.


All of that out of the way, I thought I'd include the following personal essay I sent my mother and aunt back in the day when S. was just starting solid foods and I had the time/energy/inclination to make my own baby food.

Dear Mom & Aunt N-

So, as you may know, I've been making a good bit of S's baby food myself. It's been very rewarding -- my little "Martha Stewart" moment each week as I carefully prepare, puree, and freeze various fruits, vegetables and meats for her dining pleasure. So far it has gone well - most things turn out well, and very few aren't worth the effort (raspberries come to mind).

Lately, S. has been fond of bananas and apples. That's great, in the sense that she's getting plenty of fruit in her diet; not so great in that apples and bananas have a way of slowing down her little digestive system. In an effort to keep things moving along at their usual pace, I am trying to incorporate more fiber into her diet.

At the store today, I was browsing the dried fruit section for apricots when I also spied dried prunes. Before today the only thing I knew about prunes was that they are good for the purpose mentioned above, i.e., keeping a person's pipes clear. I figured it would be prudent for me to whip up a batch of prunes to have on hand as necessary for S's well being.

You're probably both a bit more familiar with dried prunes that I am (that is not an age joke - just a statement of fact). They have a sticky-sweet smell and a not-so-appetizing shriveled dark brown appearance. From my experience with different foods over the past few months, I deduced that the best way to prepare the prunes for the pureeing process was to poach them. This went quite well and the kitchen filled with the smell of earthy sweetness as the dried fruit simmered on the stove.

All was going along quite well. And then it was time to puree.

I don't know if you've ever had the experience of pureeing prunes, but to say it was surprising would be kind. First of all, they are very sticky and tough -- I had to add nearly a cup of water to my mini food processor to get them to a manageable consistency. Then there was the smell: At this point I have been smelling prunes, either poaching or being pureed, for nearly 30 minutes. The sticky-sweet-earthiness has slowly turned into an overwhelming stench. But the smell was nothing compared to their appearance.

As someone who has been changing a baby's diapers for over eight months,there was only one thing I could think of as I watched the tar-like brown puree whip around in the food processor. The similarities grew even more apparent as I spooned the puree into the ice cube trays for freezing. At this point, my senses were so overwhelmed and the associations with baby poop so vivid (I mean, really, what's the point of even feeding it to her since it will look the same coming out as it will going in?) that I had to fight the urge to give up and just wash it all down the sink. I think that the only thing that kept me from following through on that impulse was the thought of what this sludge would do to our pipes.

As two ice cube trays full of pureed poached prunes set in my freezer, there's only one thing I can say about this whole experience: I now know for sure that there are some baby foods that are best prepared by someone else.

Love, Me

Monday, October 6, 2008

Anxiety of Authorship

I tried this whole blog thing once before. My first post was about ants. As far as I am concerned, ants are Satan's miniature army. Every year they find some way to march their way in to my kitchen and crawl in to every tiny corner looking for a crumb to eat. And every year, I fight back - traps, spray, powder around the foundation of the house, ancient Indian rituals. Eventually the ants have their fill or grow war weary and head on to a new battlefront, but I know deep down that we will meet again.

That's what was on my mind the last time these fingers hit the keyboard in an effort to clear my mind, air my grievances, and enlighten the virtual world with my insight. So what stopped me? What allowed that post to linger and ultimately evaporate when I hit the "Delete Blog" button? Nothing other than the self-doubt that some/most/all authors have at one time or another. Or in my case, all of the time. Ever since I could read, I wanted to write. But ever since I received my first paper back with edits on it from my first grade teacher, I get that tight squeamy feeling in my chest when I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to bring my thoughts into the public space where they can be - dum dum dum - judged. (For what it's worth, my first grade teacher was a total bitch, but that's a story for another day.)

Ironically, I've become one heck of an editor over the years (save for my own writing - lucky you). I have no fear taking my pen to someone else's work, rewriting sentences, organizing paragraphs, changing (for seemingly the five hundredth time) "their" to "there" or "it's" to "its" or "She gave it to Pete and I" to "She gave it to Pete and me" (just because it sounds fancy doesn't mean it is). More than once have I written "what does this mean?" and "redundant." I hope the authors know it isn't personal.

All of that being said, following an incredibly fun, interesting, and enlightening dinner with a number of bloggers the other evening, I decided to once again give this a shot. This is just me writing down whatever happens to be on my mind from time to time. Feel free to leave a note or a comment. I know it's not personal.