Thursday, January 31, 2008

Can You Have Enough Lincoln Logs?

We, or, uh, the kids got Lincoln Logs for Christmas this year and it's one of my favorite toys. I somehow distinctly remember building cabins with the little wooden logs when I was a kid. Were these my sister's? How old was I? I think I can picture me on the floor of her old room next to the closet building little houses. I especially remember lining up flat green slats on red triangular braces to make roofs.

The sets have changed--they come with plastic pieces like people and already-constructed roofs. But just not that many pieces. One woodlander set was barely enough for DS much less both DD and DS. And they both wanted to play--if I split the logs, they could each make a wobbly house about 2" tall. We began to make "flat" houses, or floorplans, because it was the best we could do and the only way their little animals would fit. So we started looking for a bigger set. The stores were wiped out so DP ordered a big kit off the internet.

It arrived last night and they were thrilled. It was hard to get them up to bed. There were longer logs, more logs, some new roof pieces. Fantastic. But because DS especially likes to build towers, it was still not enough. He kept pillaging DD's pile. He wanted a house and a "Great Wall of China" (yes, I'm serious). So this morning at 7:00 a.m., DP fetched a set from her car that she'd purchased before locating the big set on the internet. And now there are more long logs and more roof pieces. But only 1 ladder and 1 window and 1 door. ARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!

I know, I know, we should be teaching them to take turns (sharing isn't a concept for them right now--besides, how can you share one door between 2 log cabins?) and we try but we also want them to have what they need to create and their imaginations are as big as . . . the Great Wall.

For now, the entire set, is in timeout because two frustrated toddlers (are they really still toddlers at 2 1/2? We're not in preschool yet, though), threw them all on the floor and wouldn't pick them up. I think they were actually relieved that I took them away.

At least that buys me some time to figure out where I can inexpensively purchase yet more Lincoln Logs.

(P.S. Another thing I had not forgotten: those darned logs hurt when you accidentally step on them, especially the little ones. Good thing my PT has me wearing shoes inside now!)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mutually Exclusive Ideas

I have been bombarded recently with articles, books, and thoughts about food, its origins, and the future of our society, both its health and the planet's. I read in an article just today (in the Best Food Writing of 2005, I'll get the citation) that regular, non-organic apple trees are treated with up to 400 different chemical compounds in order to make them grow. The article went on to say that it is no wonder the taste of apples has deteriorated while our cancer rates have risen. And then the Minimalist, Mark Bittman, has jumped on the eat-less-meat because it's better for you and for the planet bandwagon (a la Michael Pollan). Just reading about the cows was enough to make my stomach turn. And, if that wasn't enough, DP came home with Pollan's In Defense of Food from Costco last night. This is the book with its summary on the front illustration--"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Of course, I'm sympathetic with many of these ideas. And eat organic and mostly real food most of the time.

But as I was reading that apple article, I was eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Uh-huh. From you-know-where. What a contrast! And, while WW promotes healthy living, many of its recipes and those posted by its members on the message board contain items that Pollan (and my grandmothers) wouldn't recognize as food--dry cake mix baked with only diet soda, anyone? And I've eaten that too. Sometimes my boundaries between avoiding chemicals and losing weight with foods that aren't are blurry.

Just for full disclosure, the kids had McNuggets, but they don't get ww cake mix. We made what I would consider to be much healthier, real food oatmeal bars earlier this morning.

In honor of my embrace of this dichotomy, I include both recipes.

-=-=-=-=-=

Diet Soda Cake Cobbler
1 pkg regular white cake mix dry
24 oz frozen berries
20 oz diet soda

Put frozen fruit on bottom of baking pan 13x9. Sprinkle cake mix over the fruit. Pour soda over cake. Do not stir cake mix in. Cover pan with foil and bake 20 minutes, uncover and bake 30 minutes or longer at 350.


Oatmeal Bars

The recipe for homemade fillings are in the BH&G cookbook, but the jams work well too. A note: a layer of toasted almonds adds to the crunch; you can also sprinkle untoasted almonds on the top (but not for the kids).

Makes 25

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup butter
1-10 oz. jar of preserve

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar, and baking soda. Cut in butter til mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Reserve ½ cup of the flour mixture. Press remaining flour mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 9 x 9 x 2 inch baking pan. Spread with desired filling. Sprinkle with reserved flour mixture.

Bake in 350°F oven for 30 to 35 minutes or til the top is golden. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into bars.

Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Something for Everyone

Here's a dish we made this week: "unstuffed" cabbage.

It hasn't been an unqualified success, except to me and DP. In other words, despite onions for DS and meat for DD, they aren't entirely happy, though they did eat some of it. But I have a head cold (not a bad one, and I'd rather have that than the stomach flu, but I'm still a little slow off the block) and it is warm and comforting food.

And easy because it's another crockpot "dump" recipe.

-=-=-=-=-

My Leader's "Unstuffed" Cabbage

1 head cabbage, shredded
1 onion, sliced
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 lb ground meat (we used turkey)
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
salt, pepper, garlic, other seasonings
(the original recipe--from my WW meetings--calls for a bag of Success brown rice. We just used steamed on the side)

Brown meat and place in slow cooker. Layer vegetables. Pour over tomatoes. Add seasonings to taste.

Serve over rice (or, if you have that bag of rice, cook it in the pot, with extra water as needed).

Proud Mommy

When I told our babysitter that DS had written his first letter, she believed I was a delusional proud mommy, as she recounted later. How is it that a 2 1/2 year old wrote the letter "T"? But I swear, he had. It had happened the night before. We were playing on our new wall-sized magnetic chalkboard (DP's weekend project was painting and painting and painting the 12 x 8' wall). DS said he needed the letters of his name and then he wrote a "t" and identified it as such (just so you know, his name doesn't actually start with a "t" though it has one). There it was, one vertical line with a tiny little lid. Definitely a "t," a capital one. Wow. So, I proudly told the babysitter the next day, when explaining the rules of the chalkboard (only chalk, only this wall), that DS had written a letter. And she didn't believe me.

Until he did it again for her, saying he was going to write a "t" and then doing it.

Now, to teach him the other letters in his name.

-=-=-=-=-=

We practice counting when we come across it. And usually we count one more than whatever item we're counting. DS even likes to jump from six to eleven, mainly, we think, because eleven rhymes with seven. And we haven't really stressed their ages to them. They don't understand time--not today, tomorrow, one week, a year. We'll get to these concepts when it's time (hee, hee). So, they don't really know how to wave their fingers in the sign of number "two" at anyone. Which is why I was floored at the library yesterday when DD managed to count not just "2" but one through five with her fingers!

I guess we should work on what it means.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Trio of Recipes and Stories

We were at a playdate last week and DD loved the dessert the mom served at lunch--butterscotch brownies. I'm not much for butterscotch but these were good (DD ate hers and DS's and wanted another). So, the kind mom gave us a bag of butterscotch chips--she had several because these are her father-in-law's favorite treats. The next day, realizing we needed both a morning activity and something to take to playgroup in the afternoon, we made butterscotch brownies too. They loved watching my "cement" mixer make short work of the ingredients, which they'd helped me count as I measured. DD was even able to predict that we'd need flour and sugar. As usual, they loved the dough. But the brownies were good too. And since I'm much more partial to chocolate than butterscotch, I wasn't tempted to eat all the extras.

But DD was.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened (we used our substitute butter sticks)
1 3/4 cups packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cups (11-oz. pkg.) NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® Butterscotch Morsels, divided
1 cup chopped nuts (not for us)

PREHEAT oven to 350° F.
COMBINE flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Beat butter, sugar and vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in 1 cup morsels and nuts. Spread into ungreased 13x9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with remaining morsels.
BAKE for 30 to 40 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack.

-=-=-=-=-=-

We went to a Winter Babies party yesterday and the kids had a marvelous time hanging out with new, older kids. They got to play in the dark with flashlights and try out a lot of games that we don't have (one had bees and a hive, one had "cooties", another had dominos and little trains--I didn't think it was game time yet but perhaps it is). Oh, and DD got to play with a Diego toy and DS got to do a Thomas the Tank Engine puzzle. They both liked all the musical instruments. Heaven. DD's favorite part of the party (after playing with the flashing hand soap dispenser in the bathroom) was the host, the husband Mr. K, whom she likes a lot (we know them from church)--he is fun, and connects with kids on this special, intuitive level (he has 2 girls of his own and one baby on the way)--she made sure he got some of the cookies we made. But I think DS's favorite thing was the punch. And I had a favorite punch too, recipes below.

DS's Favorite Punch, a.k.a. How He Ate 2 Pints of Blueberries
1 bottle sparkling cider
1 container lemon sorbet
1 can of pineapple rings
1 pint of blueberries

Combine. Yum.

My Favorite Coffee Punch
1 pot of coffee (hot or cold)
cream to taste
1 container of coffee ice cream

Combine. Yum.

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At some point in the last few weeks, DP saw a show on tv about Louisiana cooking. She was half asleep while watching (I think this is when we were sick) but recalled this "seven steak" (and she's not sure of the title, the chef had a true Louisisana accent) recipe, with the holy trinity of ingredients--bell pepper, onion, and celery. My mom starts almost every dish she makes by sauteeing those three items. Anyway, she made us sandwiches with the meat today and it was incredible, almost reminiscent of the "debris" sandwiches we'd get at Mother's in New Orleans.

1 round roast, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch "steaks" (this is because we bought the wrong roast to make Swiss Steak and needed to use it somehow)
1 box of celery
1 bell pepper
1 onion
salt, pepper
bay leaf
garlic

Finely chop vegetables--the trinity--in food processor. Saute.

Sear steaks on high a few at a time. Deglaze with water between batches and put steaks and drippings in slow cooker.

Add sauteed vegetables to slow cooker. Also add bay leaf, salt, pepper, and minced garlic to taste. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Towards the end, season to taste with all-purpose seasoning, a tad of sugar, more water.

Shred cooked beef with fork. Spoon onto hard rolls. Devour.

(P.S. I just found the real recipe online and DP, in her ill haze, still managed to get the name, and most of the recipe, fairly right.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Control Issues

I have had an epiphany: it's all about control. And giving it to the children.

Now, sure, as we say, "mommy is in charge of health and safety." But outside of that, the power is up for grabs.

And understanding this has revitalized my menus, among other things. It happened over lunch. The kids had veggies and chicken with leftover rice. I was getting over the stomach flu and had chicken broth. And they wanted some. So, I spooned out some soup and they happily began to drop various foods from their plates into the soup bowls. And their choices were different. DS focused on rice and veggies. DD chose chicken and veggies.

I realized that most of our meals need to be "make your own." Not just tacos and pizza, but more complicated--pasta sauces, omelet inserts, meatloaf muffins, even cookies. Let the kids help make the food (not touching raw meat, of course), choosing what they want--control over and an investment in what they are eating. And they really enjoy cooking! I know I realized this idea when I served mixed veggies family style and let them pick their favorites off, but I can expand it to include the whole meal. And, if I do it right--say, start with baked chicken and they choose the sides, then the next day tortilla soup with chicken (do they want veggies? noodles or tortillas?), or chicken tacos--it can go on for days. Now I just have to start thinking up everything that they can "build their own." It's fun. And they'll eat it.

The Naming of Foods

Fat rascals. Spotted Dick. Chudleighs. Catterns. Banbury Cake. Eccles Cake. Chorley Cake. Richmond Maids of Honor. Pitcaithly bannock. Parkin. These are from our British friends, who have the best names.

But we have some of our own: Lady Baltimore Cake. Hummingbird Cake. Charlotte Russe (okay, probably not specifically ours).

Such glorious names. Makes me want to track them down and try them.

What has happened to food names? Now, all my cookbooks and magazines use such pedantic names--chicken with capers and tomatoes, chocolate almond bundt cake--where's the romance? where's the fantasy? I like the old names.

We're not very creative at our house, yet, with names. The kids want to know what's in a food. Are there onions? How about corn? And who made it? If it's Gong's chicken, that's the best (even though I think Ma actually makes it). Plain chicken just doesn't excite. Gommie's gravy was also exciting. In fact, any gravy is better than sauce--call it sauce and DD won't eat it. But gravy is food of the gods.

But when they're a little older, we're going to start making of good names, fun names, imaginative names.

Names that make you curious.

Names that make you want to eat.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Many Happy Returns, Lambeth!

Today is my dear friend Lambeth's birthday! Happy, happy birthday from across the pond!

I've known him for, what is it now, 16 years this summer? We met in Rome, when we were attending a summer program. As a former professor with the school, he and his wife were able to attend the program. I was a rising senior, about to finish college and go off to grad school.

And that summer changed my life. I had been abroad briefly before--trips to Greece, a summer on an archaeological dig in Tunisia, some time in England (Lambeth's home)--but living in Rome for three months was miraculous. I still often dream that I'm walking through the streets. I visited hundreds of churches, ate my weight twice over in gelato, learned some Italian, visited the Domus Aurea and other amazing sites, decided to change my classical studies major to art history (well, not change--added a major. I"m actually 4 credit hours short of two whole separate B.A.s), and made friends that have lasted all these years.

Lambeth, you should know that you are very important to me. I'm not always the best correspondent and some years have been much leaner than others, but you are often in my thoughts. I love your stories (both from your own life and those you've picked up along the way), your wide breadth of knowledge, the articles you clip and send in the mail (though I rarely remember to tell you that I've read them--by the way, I liked the one on hormones you just sent), your gentle advice. I have fond memories of that summer in Rome and our visits both in England and in the States since then.

It's our turn to come there, which we'll do as soon as the kiddos would be good international travelers. Until then, thank heavens for the internet.

And for you.

Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I Made a Chicken

I channeled my mom tonight and put a perfect baked chicken on the table--complete with rice and gravy and peas--and the kids loved it. Baked chicken--always with rice and gravy and peas--was one of my favorite meals as a kid. Now, the one I made tonight was different than mom's by degrees--it was a "natural" chicken (as organic as I could find) and the rice was steamed in our rice cooker not boiled with butter and there were corn niblets in with the peas because DD is partial to corn. But the spirit of the meal was there. My gravy even thickened appropriately! It was so deeply satisfying to serve that chicken, which I managed to make easily and relatively quickly. And watching them gobble it down, well, just made me happy.

I think baked chicken might be my favorite meal again.

-=-=-=-=-=-=

Mom’s Baked Chicken

3-4 lb. fryer chicken
salt and pepper
1 cup water

Preheat oven to 500°F. Salt and pepper chicken. Sear uncovered in oven for 10-15 minutes. Add 1 cup water, cover, and reduce heat to 350°F. Bake for 1 ½ hours.
Make gravy and serve with rice and peas.

Mom

Gravy
I must be patient, I must be patient, I must be patient to let the gravy turn the right copper color—it always takes longer and it will thicken.

Heat 4 tablespoons grease. Add 4 tablespoons of flour. Brown til copper-colored. DO NOT BURN. Stir in 4 cups drippings (or a combo of water and broth to make 4 cups liquid). Add chicken bouillon and salt and pepper to taste.

Mom

Rice

¾ cups rice (like Texmati)
1 ½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter

Put all ingredients in the pot. Boil and reduce heat. Cover. Simmer 15 minutes with no stirring.
If gummy, take lid off and cook a minute or so more. If hard, add 2 tablespoons of water and cook longer.

Mom

An Unexplained, Unexpected Sadness

I am, strangely, sad about the death of actor Heath Ledger tonight. It goes without saying that I did not know him--I haven't even seen Brokeback Mountain, though I have seen some of his other films (mainly the costumed ones--Patriot, Casanova, Brothers Grimm, A Knight's Tale). But thinking about his 2 year old daughter and the other family and friends he leaves behind, I am saddened. There have been other unexpected deaths of actors and athletes recently, coupled with the strangeness of the lives of those who are not dead . . yet (I am thinking of Britney Spears and the like) . . . and I feel old wondering what has happened to all of these young people?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Saw An Owl Looking at Me

The children got to see an owl today. A real, live, flapping owl blinking his great big eyes. The presentation on Connecticut wildlife began less dramatically, though, with discussions of the kinds of owls in the area and the threats to owl habitat. Through all of the talk, the children sat relatively quietly, though DD kept wondering when the lady was going to play with the puppets she had brought. She did, eventually, showing the skunks owls eat (they, like all birds but vultures, have no sense of smell), the way their heads work (or don't--they can't go all the way around), and where their amazing ears are (on the sides of their face plates, not those tuffs on their heads). She even showed real owl claws, real feathers (which are quiet in flight), and--yippee!--owl vomit (the bones, fur, etc., that they don't digest and thus regurgitate). She also had a handy gadget with several owl call recordings, which the kids enjoyed mimicking.

And then, the Barred Owl made his appearance. He was nervous and flapped wildly, which pitched him sideways. Because he only has one wing. DD and DS were amazed and also sympathetic. DD kept asking if he were going to fly away and I told her that he couldn't because of his injuries. She kept saying that he would like to fly away but he couldn't because he was a one-winged owl. "He's looking at me," she said. And sure enough, those big eyes were looking our way. She considered getting closer to see him but decided against it. But couldn't stop staring at him. Neither could DS. They liked how the owl stared and turned his head, and particularly how he puffed out his feathers to look bigger.

Then it was time for the owl to go back in his cage--"just like our kitties," DD noted--and so we said goodbye to the beautiful Barred Owl.

Maybe we'll see him again, though. The Nature Center would be a great place for a birthday party.

Give Sharing a Chance

DS wanted to crawl on top of the upside-down laundry basket where DD was perched, pretending to be riding a moose (or Moose, the character in Maurice Sendak's Little Bear, who always gives the other critters a ride--this is their favorite show right now). But there wasn't enough room mainly because DD wasn't making way.

DS tried the turn-taking techniques we've been stressing to no avail.

"Well, then I'm going to get my guitar."

And he came back and sang to her, "Get down off the basket so I can have a turn! Get down off the basket so I can have a turn! Have a tu-rn! Have a tu-rn!"

His first protest song.

That'll show her.

(Needless to say, it didn't work.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

From My Sickbed

It's been a trying week here, as I came down with a virulent case of the stomach flu. DP had to stay home one day, her mother came up another day, the kiddos are watching way too much tv now that I'm back in charge. Only upside, I've lost 9 lbs. And counting.

But there have been funny things. Here are just three:

This morning, as DP was leaving for work and giving out hugs and beep-beeps (think ET finger touches with sound--or Michelangelo's Creation of Adam--depending on the kind of person you are), and DS declared, "I don't need a hug." Oh, my little boy is growing up. He said he'd take a beep-beep, though.

Also this morning, one cat scared the other cat and her tail got really poofy. DS asked me, "My bum will be poofy too?"

Finally, DD just had me change her into footie pajamas, with a zipper, even though it's noon. The reason? She wants to be able to fill them with toys to carry around in secret. Clever. But maybe not so comfortable.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Loaves in the Oven

The bananas were mushy and dark. Not good for eating, not for me anyway. But perfect for banana bread. And I have a great recipe from my mom. And the kids can have wheat. So on Friday, we made banana bread.

I pulled out my giant Kitchen Aid mixer and the kids were immediately interested. This was cool--Mommy has a "cement mixer," DS declared. And they knew the bananas were going in the bowl. So, peels still on, DD and DS kept tossing whole bananas into my mixer. And then other things from the counter--like the K-cups for my cofee machine--were tossed in. I soon got the bowl cleared and the real ingredients in. DD, in telling DP about it all the next day, noted that we "scrambled the eggs." We counted and measured cups and teaspoons of the other ingredients, with the kiddos taking turns dumping them into the bowl. And I greased and floured the pans. But this bothered DD who kept trying to wipe off the coating with a sponge; it was dirty.

The bread went in the oven and the kiddos went to play. But they know what the timer sounds like and ran back in to help get the bread out. Yay, just what you need--toddlers helping pull things out of a hot oven. They're experienced with the oven now and know to sit in their chairs at the table when I'm going to open it. And so the bread came out, it cooled (that was hard to wait for!), and I cut the first pieces.

And it was a hit! DD loved the crust, oddly enough, and DS enjoyed the inside. Perfect for switching plates. We even called Gommie and told her we were making banana bread--the kiddos actually thanked her for giving me the recipe! Just two days later, there is only half a loaf left (I always make it into two, even though they're short).

Maybe pumpkin bread should be next. Or strawberry. There is no end to the bread we can make in my cement mixer.

-=-=-=-=-=

Banana Bread
Mmmmm, Mom’s banana bread! So good toasted with butter and it freezes beautifully.
Makes 1 loaf (or 2 short ones)

Beat:
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup shortening
Add:
2 eggs
4 tablespoons milk
Sift and add:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Add:
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups mashed bananas (appx. 6 bananas)
1 cup nuts (optional--we skipped them; otherwise, we would use chopped pecans)

Grease and flour pan. Bake at 350°F for about 40 minutes. For miniature muffins, bake at 350°F for 15 minutes.

Mom

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's Still Fall Here

DP and I have not done much with yard maintenance this fall. We're pretty hands off in general--no chemicals, little lawn mowing except when necessary, no intensive gardening. Our yard is acceptable but not the neatest one on the block. That would be hard--a neighbor up the street almost sits outside as temperatures drop waiting to catch the first leaf before it falls. I'm sure our lawn drives him nuts.

Not that I didn't rake this year. I did. Several times. So the kids could jump in the piles. I never put the piles in bags. The leaves are still in the yard, mostly around our rock wall. We have the only fall leaves left in Connecticut. And sometimes I feel guilty about this--it looks messy compared to the still green lawns around us. But then I remember, we have the natural yard. It is unnatural to have green grass and no leaves at this time of year. We've gotten so accustomed to immaculate yards that we forget that it's bizarre, really.

And today I was never so happy to have leaves in the yard. Because for an hour the kids played in them. Baking. They used two empty plastic pots we had for herbs and filled them again and again with leaves, twigs, bark, pine cones, and the like. One was a chocolate-cherry pie with sauce. Another was "duck soup," from a recent episode of their now-favorite tv show Little Bear. DS went back and forth probably 100 times piling it with "salt." They kept filling and refilling, working together and sharing. And we all sat down on the no longer frozen, leaf-covered ground and ate together with twig forks and spoons.

A perfect fall day . . . in January.

Morsels

Every night as I tuck him in bed, DS wraps one arm around my neck and tells me it was a wonderful day.

The other day, he actually said we were having a wonderful day right smack dab in the middle of a terrific morning.

He also especially likes to rub cheeks together throughout the day when we hug.

-=-=-=-=-=

During bath time, DS kept asking me to put my hands together. He'd then pour water in my hands. "Thank you." And after swirling around the water with his own hands, he'd instruct me to "pour it in the water." And we'd start all over again. Soon I was singing, "I've got the whole bathtub in my hands . . . "

-=-=-=-=-=

DD has located the panda bears DP bought months ago at the San Diego Zoo. She carries them around all the time and plays with them. They are mommy and mama panda. By the way, she still doesn't have two mommies, but a mommy and a mama.

-=-=-=-=-=

DS has a new habit: he walks around with his palms pressed together, much like the yogic Namaste stance. It's very meditative of him.

-=-=-=-=-=

On Sunday at church, DD actually kissed her nursery caretaker--of whom she was once afraid--goodbye and chanted, "I like Miss T" all the way down the hallway.

-=-=-=-=-=

DS likes to help me with my exercises. He lies down on the floor with me and either raises his legs straight over his head or does a back bend. Of course, those aren't exercises I can do.

-=-=-=-=-=

Both DD and DS love making forts in the couch. Or, well, playing in them. They can't quite manipulate the heavy couch pillows and so need my help. Their favorite design has both a little house with a window and a yard.

-=-=-=-=-=

Play in our house has become incredibly independent and imaginative. They can go for almost half an hour without interrpution (or for the most part intervention). Yesterday, they built a train track to fly (I know, mixing modes of transportation) to Gommie and Pop's. A few days before, they had constructed a boat to sail in with the same bricks. In the bathtub by herself when DS fell asleep at 5:15 the other night, DD played "ocean family" with a turtle, a whale, and a dolphin, with various creatures hiding and seeking. They both still like to "bake" in the tub.

-=-=-=-=-=

Harking back to a time when they could barely reach the sink when they were standing on chairs, their favorite art activity right now is actually cleaning the brushes after painting. Water gets everywhere. Soap too. My kitchen--sink, counters, floor, chairs--has never been so clean.

-=-=-=-=-=

DS's favorite book right now is Animal Orchestra, a Golden Book about animals who play music. He likes to point to the creatures and name them and their instrument. Yesterday, his babysitter and I helped him mime playing the instruments. Violin and trombone were his favorites.

-=-=-=-=-=

DD has a strict, if incomprehensible, hierarchy of stuffed critters. Certain ones (Ernie, Elmo, Wolf, Dragon) must sleep with her. Some of these (Wolf and Dragon, for sure) must stay in bed after she goes down for the day. Some (Ernie, Elmo, Red-eyd tree frog, Polar Bear) can come down. Others (Amy and her three bunny sisters, which were mine and are named after the four Little Women) downstairs must never go upstairs to the bedroom. Shirt transcends all.

We get it wrong daily.
-=-=-=-=-=

Favorite song: it's a toss up between Hokey Pokey and (I can't get a consensus on how this is spelled) Luby Loo/Loopy Lou/Loop de Lou/Looby Loo. Both involve much shaking of body parts and turning around. Ring-around-the-Rosie and If You're Happy and You Know it are close seconds. BINGO comes up third.

Back to Food

It's been awhile since I've posted a recipe or talked about food specifically. I've been making familiar dishes and new things recently (everything in the crockpot because morning is just so much easier for prep than late afternoon).

And the kiddos like very little of any of it. If they had their way, DS would eat jelly sandwiches, grape tomatoes, and fruit cocktail all day, while DD would eat banana "coins," rice krispie treats, and cereal. Both adore marshmallows. At least there is fruit in there, right?

Borrowing from a member forum on the Weight Watchers website, I'm posting what's in the crockpot today.

But starting with yesterday, when I made the Lentil and Rice meal from Jyl Steinback's book The Busy Mom's Slow Cooker Cookbook. I don't have it in front of me but will paraphrase until I do--2 cups lentils, 2 cups uncooked brown rice, 9 cups liquid (a combo of water and broth), diced onion/carrot/bell pepper/celery, seasoning. I like the idea but the lentils were undercooked and the rice turned mushy. I think I might have put in 3 cups of lentils instead of 2, not measuring but just eyeballing the bag. Oh, well. Edible. To me. Not to the kids.

I made our old stand-by, pork with onions, the other day. I added some sweet potatoes we had on hand. And as usual, they loved it. DD ate most of the sweet potatoes. DS inhaled the onions.

So today, I'm trying a variation on this dish. It's like New England boiled dinner but with pork instead of corned beef or pot roast: pork chops, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, and a can of diced tomatoes (my addition, they love tomatoes). So, there are potatoes and onions to please the kiddos, and cabbage to try, which I don't think they've had. They love lettuce, though, so they might be receptive.

Let's hope it goes over well because we ate all the marshmallows for breakfast.

Warm Wishes

A "howdy" to my sister and her fiancee to let them know we're thinking of them. Between her crazy nurse/grad school schedule and my chaotic days with the kiddos, we haven't gotten to talk on the phone much. But things are stressful for her now and I know she reads this blog occasionally.

H and S, we're thinking of you and love you both!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gnothi Seauton*

As you know, I've been thinking quite a bit about the meaning of motherhood, both in the abstract definition and to myself in particular. I read a lot about it in my magazines--Kiwi, Parent & Child, Mothering, Wonder Time, Family Fun (okay, the second title from Disney, but they create great magazines), Parenting, and my new favorite Brain, Child--and think about it regularly. But they don't much help me define motherhood and my relationship to/experience with it, though they give me great techniques and exercises to utilize as I actually perform "motherhood." Nor do the thought-provoking essays of modern mother-writers like Judith Warner or Ayelet Waldman. Not enough of a philosophical paradigm to guide my thoughts or actions. I also talk (and email) to my friends and my mom about their ideas of motherhood and it is mostly through those discussions that I have had some amazing insights.

Anyway, I think I've been having an identity crisis. It was something a friend said, that she had always known that she wanted to be a mother, that it is who she was always meant to be. Not me. I never really thought of myself as a mom. I didn't play with dolls too much (except my Star Wars action figures). I didn't like babysitting. I did love being a counselor at camp for children with special needs, though. Why not children? Was it the need of a man (because of course I didn't know you could have kids without one, figuratively speaking, when I was a teenager)? I didn't often picture myself married either. All of my self-definitions and predictions revolved around academic achievement. I wanted college then a career. When I got to college, I went on to graduate school and then a career. My entire sense of self was defined in a very professional, fairly academic, mostly intellectual way. Achievement could be quantified with grades or degrees or titles.

Which is the direct opposite of my mom. My mom was (is? are you a SAHM if there are no kids at home anymore?) a stay-at-home-mom. She had been a teacher but left her career to have children and never went back. She did an immense amount of volunteering--with a domestic violence shelter, as a museum docent--and sometimes worked in my dad's business. And as a career girl, I just didn't understand. And I remember thinking, and probably even saying to her and to my career-oriented sister, that she probably didn't quite understand our workaday world either. Neither of us had really done what the other had. She always said that being a mom was the best thing in the world. And I didn't get it.

Until now. Because, after growing up surrounded by SAHMs, with my own SAHM, I am one. And I think it is because of that experience and background that I am good at it. It's in the training. Not that my mom reared me to be a mom, just that it's what I saw and know, even if I spent the first 15+ years of my adult life doing the exact opposite. And I think it's why I'm good at "it", at motherhood, even though I don't always know what it is or what I'm doing. My mom was fun. Is fun. Okay, let's just use the past tense, even though she is still very much alive and will be reading this soon (and crying, a trait I laughed at as a child but have fully inherited as a grown up), but I'm talking about the mom of my childhood here and my childhood is very much not in the present tense (unless that you follow the belief that in mothering we fill the holes of our own childhood; this doesn't work for me--I don't see any holes. So maybe I'm just revisiting it? We didn't have this many cool toys.) She was fun. She would play with us, be silly, as she likes to note, she was the mom on the floor doing stuff. I try to do that. She also loved to give us different and new experiences. Ditto. She was pretty relaxed and laid back. I struggle at this but am getting there. We felt comfortable talking to her about anything--did your mom tell you masturbation was okay when you were 11? Mine did. And that homosexuality was okay? Didn't think so. Well, my kids aren't there yet, but they do know the proper names of their bodies parts and use them without any self-consciousness. And there was/is still unconditional love all of the time.

Thank goodness for the wonderful examples she gave me because I now find myself where I didn't ever expect to be. Not that I didn't want to be a mom. Duh. I didn't accidentally become a mom. Lesbians don't. It was months of infertility treatments (and we were lucky that it was only months) and then, let's just call it, a challenging pregnancy. It wasn't enough time for the change in my thinking though. A friend of mine, from graduate school actually, said you need all that time to really get used to the idea. Well, she was always a more efficient worker than I was because I'm still working on it. I'm having to rearrange what I had learned to be my whole sense of self. Nothing is the same--not my daily routine, not my body, not my goals, not my priorities, not my values, not my obsessions, not my worries, not my self-examination. And I don't know how to understand this new me. It's not the me I knew. Gone are the good grades as a benchmark; motherhood is only ever judged negatively as far as I can gather--what you're not doing right, what you didn't do--if it is judged at all. It's certainly not rewarded in any way I'm used to--there's no money, no degree, no honor society, no raise, no nice word from the boss. (Let's not get me started tonight on the professionalization of motherhood, with all of us career women becoming moms and bringing with us heightened organization, competition, focus on status and achievement, etc. I don't really like it one bit). The only proof of what I'm accomplishing is sleeping in two cribs in the room next to ours. And, well, we won't truly know how they'll turn out for years. And that's not even in my complete control, as they came to us as already unique people--all I can do, as my friend Lambeth rightly reminds me, is try to guide their path and warn them of the pitfalls.

Motherhood is very much an ongoing process with no end. Even my dissertation had an end. Eventually. I used to joke that writing a dissertation was very much like having a baby. Of course, that was before I had two babies, because what I didn't count on was what happened afterwards. My dissertation is on a shelf, the Ph.D. I could post behind my name is rarely seen. Not so the kiddos. The work has only just begun. Which is something my graduate school advisor alluded to once. She said that once you receive your Ph.D. you enter a whole new playing field where everyone has advanced degrees so the degrees just don't count anymore; it's what you do with your career that matters. Just like it is what I do as a mom that matters.

I even get caught up in what "mothering" is. It's not "fathering," which is traditionally the physical act of creating a child. But what is it? Oddly, I'm not an academic-achievement oriented mom (yet)--I don't stress about counting or identifying letters like some of my friends do. I figure the kids will get it when it's time. I'm much more interested in personal, emotional development--taking turns, expressing emotions, caring and loving, exploring both independently and together. Sometimes I confuse motherhood with homemaking. And I'm not a great homemaker in a few senses of the word--I don't keep an especially neat or clean house and I don't always have a well-rounded meal on the table. But my own mom laughed at me and said those things really weren't what being a homemaker was about, that it was about creating a warm and loving and welcoming home for family and friends. I often get caught up in the mess and the lack of a great meal, though, forgetting that my children like the stuff all around and prefer rice krispie treats for dinner once in awhile (it's only happened once). Maybe even in being a mediocre homemaker (or whatever word my mom would use for house-cleaner and food-provider--my dad would say "mopswinger"), I'm being a better mommy (though of course, all this philosophizing--perhaps a vanity of my own motherhood--belies a certain insecurity about the whole experience and my abilities).

Which is why I think it's funny that when I express some SAHM stress (for instance when I list the three little things I miss as a mom: listening to the radio as loudly as I want in the car, going to the bathroom by myself, and, the one I realized this week, being the one to choose when I'm done reading something), working moms (including my doctor) tell me to go back to work--get this, that I'm too smart to stay home with kids. What does that mean?!? I stress about this as well. Would I be a better mom if I went back to work now? What is "better"? I do plan to go back, eventually, because I like my work and am good at it. I just consider myself extremely fortunate that DP's career doesn't make this a necessity now (and talking about DP and her own relationship to motherhood, as a working mom, is a whole other post). And I know that staying home is the right choice for me, for us, especially when I practically hyperventilate thinking about them going off to school in 9 months. But I've written about that before, I think.

And so, even in loving motherhood and my children, I search to understand who this new me is who is "mommy." I think the search makes me a better mommy, which in turn, I hope/I guess, makes them "better" children. Socrates told the Athenian jury that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I think that's how I feel about motherhood--if I don't think about it, really deeply think about it--I'm not really living it to my fullest.

Besides, it allows me to do what I used to do best, which is research and study and think.

(Though, ironically, I think I am a much better mom than I ever was a scholar).

-=-=-=-

* "Know thyself." From the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Gotta use those 8 semesters of ancient Greek and that degree in classical studies sometime.

When Marshmallows Are Good For You . . .

. . . when your son and daughter run back and forth across the front yard hand-feeding you their marshmallow snacks on a beautiful, warm January day.

The Usual

You would think from my absence that something exciting or interesting has been absorbing all my time. Nope, not at all. Just the usual stuff. Which is nice after about 6 weeks of holidays. We had a very "normal" weekend--with a birthday party, church, lunch at a restaurant, spread out over two days. I finished a baby blanket for baby #? and started the next one. DP cleaned out an upstairs closet. The kiddos especially enjoyed playing in their igloo tents. The cats liked that too.

This week has been "normal" too. We started our library and school programs again this week, have playgroup too. It's been warm enough that the kiddos played outside without coats yesterday, spotting birds' nests in empty trees. We'll do it again today. But then I think the warm spell ends. Which is fine. It is January, after all. We've been playing a lot of hide and seek and tickle-tackle (which always ends with the ticklee shouting "calf rope," my family's secret word for stop it now). Oh, and I'm going out with the moms on Friday. I'm the designated driver for all the post-partum moms; I get chocolate cake in return. I think that's fair.

And, for now, nothing is on tap for next weekend, besides church.

Really, it's all good. A great way to ease into the new year.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Our Favorite Grace

It is another feature in one of my favorite magazines, Taste of Home, that they solicit favorite graces from readers. Most are heavily into "In Jesus Name We Pray" and don't much appeal to me. But rituals do. And so long before we were even pregnant, I started to think of different rituals and traditions that I wanted to include (I used to give a lecture at the museum in Chicago about rituals and traditions in art and could go into how they are different but will spare you all that here. Not that I can remember . . .). Many of these rituals and traditions came from my childhood, and DP's, such as reading the Christmas story while opening stockings, eating a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, black eyed peas on New Year's, and ham on Easter, or giving out red envelopes for Chinese New Year. Others are our very own. Like the grace we say at dinner.

We all hold hands and wiggle/dance/sway while singing a verse from Raffi--"All I really need is a song in my heart/food in my belly/and love in my family/All I really need is a song in my heart/Love in my family." Then we high-five. It never happens at the beginning; one of them always suggests it in the middle of the meal. Fine, especially because it's usually by the middle of the meal that we're all sitting and settled anyway. The kids won't do it at other meals because there aren't 4 of us to complete the chain; they want DP there. It's funny because I knew I wanted a way to acknowledge the beginning of the family meal and had researched such things online as well as talking to our minister, but I hadn't picked anything. DP and I laughed about using "we made it through another day," from one of our favorite films, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, but it was a little too grown up for our family right now. The other ideas all sounded hokey and contrived, not us.

And then this ritual happened spontaneously one dinner. I'm not even sure I remember how. We were sitting there having dinner, maybe talking about church and the song we'd quoted for our family's lighting of the chalice and we began to sing. Simple, effortless, good.

All I really need is love in my family . . .

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Crafty Kiddos

One of my favorite outings is going to the local craft store. And when the kiddos were babes, it was easy--they stayed in their stroller and were entertained by the yarn and what-nots I would pass to them as we wandered around. DD at least once as an infant shoplifted some yellow boucle yarn by tucking it in her carrier. Of course, I forgot all about it by checkout, excited about my own goodies. But we returned it the next time.

Now, however, is a different story. The craft store is one big field day--there are crayons and markers and paints and paper and yarn and doo-dads with Dora and Diego and rubber stamps and even little plastic animals and all manner of palm-sized things to pick off shelves. What could be more fun? They have long since abandoned the double stroller so we go in on foot. Even with a shopping cart, they're in and out of it a dozen times before I hit the first aisle. And that's if they aren't riding on the side of it! (No wonder the cashiers at Target are always handing me "buckle up for safety" stickers. Look, Target, if you made a viable cart with 2 seats, I could buckle them. But having 1 cart in the whole store that seats 2 kids just doesn't cut it! And that cart is a behemoth. And has a wonderful bar to swing off of, even if I do nab it.)

Back to the craft store. Anyway, I love to shop there and could browse all day. Hmmm, Wilton Cake decorating course materials, always wanted to try cake decorating. Pretty pastel yarn on sale, might be another baby in the playgroup after the 2 dozen or so I've already made blankets for! Oooooooh, new seasonal rubber stamps! And oh that fleece to make another knotted blanket (finished one yesterday, twin bed size, mauve and teal, very warm). But the kiddos aren't usually a). that into my craft supplies or b). that patient when I'm selecting items or c). able to keep their hands off a million different things. Who can blame them? At the craft store, I can't either.

But this one has a saving grace: the jungle and the fairy garden. That's right, right smack-dab in my craft store is a children's entertainment paradise: the floral department. And the kiddos start asking to visit it as soon as we get our cart; but we save it until last, my only leverage to enforce the two store golden rules--don't touch unless I say okay and stay with mommy. One aisle is full of fake fica trees, so full of them that they lean in forming a tunnel. This is the jungle. Yesterday, DS and DD were spotting all manner of creatures in the jungle as they giggled running back and forth with their "spotting scopes"--there were scarlet macaws above and gorillas below, and a pygmy marmoset. I kid you not; it's the educational effect of Diego. And right next to this jungle is the "fairy garden," full of silk flowers in all the colors of the rainbow. DD and DS, as DD explained to DP last night, are actually the fairies in the garden wandering from plant to plant. I am sure there were bunnies and butterflies in there with them.

So they run back and forth from jungle to garden, garden to jungle, screeching with happiness. Oftentimes, however, they are completely waylaid by the huge vases and pots on the back wall, which make great drums and echo chambers. This is the scary part because many of those are breakable. So I stand back by them and pace between aisle, using the laughter to figure out where they are. I know, they're out of my sight for seconds, but they are within earshot and, truthfully, with every clerk and customer in the store watching the merriment, nothing is going to happen. Besides, by now, all the employees recognize us.

Polish those spotting scopes, kiddos, the craft store is having a sale this week!

Celebrating

There are two meals, if you can call them that, that DP and I make for special occasions. One could be considered Italian, the other relatively British, reflecting two of my favorite places, though I don't think I had either of these there.

The first is what we can call our Millennial Meal, because I believe it got started right around 2000. Prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, crusty bread, and balsamic vinegar mixed with olive oil (little oil, lots of vinegar). Being relative non-drinkers, we usually have sparkling cider. This year we also had mulled Glogg, from Ikea, but something we first had in Chicago from the Swedith American Museum's Christmas festival (it's like spicy grape juice, sometimes with kick, in this case not). In a pinch, we make a mean wassail, with slices of orange floating in spiced cider. I distinctly remember eating this all Y2K New Year's Eve while watching the new (yes, I know, false) millennium arrive all over the globe on CNN. We ate this again on this New Year's Eve and New Year's night, watching the Met Opera telecast of I Puritani on tv. Not quite puritannical, though, I know.

The second meal is more of a tasting--DP buys several cheeses (when she was in Manhattan, she got them from Murray's and the Ideal Cheese Shop. Now she goes to Balducci's), plus crackers, marinated olives, and spreads, sometimes various meats like soppressata. I'm very partial to Saint Andre, which might as well be butter. Oh, so creamy. I also love Wensleydale with cranberries. And Pecorino Toscana. And any good sharp cheddar. This year it was Australian. These last two cheeses go well with pickle (we like Branston's--for you non-Anglophiles, pickle is a chunky, vinegary chutney-like spread. You have to try it to understand; I'm not sure the US has anything comparable). Or quince paste (membrillo, in Spanish). Or, this time we had a Stonewall Farms Farmhouse Chutney which was really good. All on Carr's water crackers. DP loves Stilton and so had that. I like it if there is a lot of membrillo on it too. And we had a brie en croute, which wasn't as creamy as I expected. Maybe we over/underheated it. I'm not sure when the cheese thing got started. We had seen a Wallace and Gromit movie (seriously) and were inspired to try some various cheeses. I think there had also been an article in one of my magazines about NYC cheese shops. And some Italian-American colleagues of hers took her along to a small Italian deli down on the Lower East Side to buy cheese and sauages for the holidays (if I remember correctly, they differentiated between a table cheese and a basket cheese). It's definitely a post-Chicago thing. And we've also started sharing it with my folks when they visit. They love the olives and trying all the different cheeses. We lose track of what we've had and liked, or not. And none of us speak cheese-lover's lingo, but we do love it. I think DP likes it best, especially because she often gets several free tastes when she's at the special shops choosing. So this year, we had all our cheeses with my parents on Christmas Eve as we set up for Christmas and then DP and I finished off the rest after they were gone.

Either of these meals goes well with panettone or some other kind of fruit dessert, like our fruitcakes from Shropshire or my mom's from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana. Or my shortbread, amaretti (we got this new "soft" one this year that is very tasty), or these great spiced cookies from Speculaas that I bought in Tarrytown. This year, we continued another tradition, that of a steamed plum pudding with brandy butter. I like William-Sonoma's brandy butter with its bits of citron and ginger best, but this year's Elizabethan brand of butter and pudding were very good. And that brandy butter will be good on plain ol' out-of-the-box gingerbread when all the fruitcake is gone. Of course, we drink tea--usually Earl Grey--with the dessert.

Now with the holidays over, we are done with all the edible indulgences until the next celebration. It's going to be a long time to Valentine's Day. Hmmm, cheese isn't exactly right for Chinese New Year. But, hey, Groundhog's Day is one of my favorite holidays! Perfect for something tasty . . .

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

You're Kidding, Right?

Everyone was spoiled at Christmas in this house. Including our two cats. Albus and Hermione have taken to stalking us in the bathroom, practically begging us to turn on the sink so they can play in the stream of water. We do, sometimes, always cognizant of the waste of water. So for Christmas, they got a kitty drinking fountain. And they love it. But they still run up the stairs when they think one of us is headed to the bathroom.

They also got a mouse doo-dad that spins around a wand toy. Basically, cat entertainment for the lazy mommy. Or in our case, the busy mommy. We turn it on when we're fixing dinner, before we can sit down to play with the cats. And they love it. In one week, they've broken the wand and ran down the battery. So last night, with the yellow mouse doo-dad on the fritz, I picked up a good, "old-fashioned" cat charmer and started to whisk it around for entertainment.

Can cats roll their eyes?

It was if you took away the Wii from some kid and handed him some jacks.

Poor 21st-century cats.