Sunday, November 30, 2008

MPM--Birthday Edition!

Greetings, fellow MPMers. Hope all of you from the states had a beautiful Thanksgiving.

To follow up on ours: I was in charge of carrot mousse, yum, and another veggie. I tried the brussels sprouts from 101 Kitchens that I mentioned last week. They were easily the best brussels sprouts I'd ever had, which was probably partially because they were fresh from the farmers' market, and partially because how can you go wrong cooking anything in olive oil and sprinkling with cheese when done? I enjoyed them but no one else seemed to, and I concurred that they would be best right out of the pan. So that wasn't a good thing to bring to Thanksgiving.

Then, voila! Along comes the amazing Smitten Kitchen with the cauliflower gratin recipe. And how kind of my CSA to provide me with the cauliflower! So all I needed was the cheese and there it was. Alas, purple cauliflower is hard to find around here but it was fun hunting for it with the boys. They were fascinated by the idea of a blue vegetable. And, it reminded me of the BooMama recipe for two-cheese squash casserole, in case I needed that too. I ran out of time on that one, but the purple cauliflower and the gratin in general were mega hits.

My other job was my husband's birthday cake. He wanted a chocolate chip cake with miniature chips, so like a good wife, I tracked down his mother's recipe and made it for him. Recipe is at the end of the post, and my word, do I ever recommend this. Not surprisingly for a recipe from someone who had five kids, it's easy for kids to help with this, an extra bonus in my book. And it was very, very fun to have made the thing that made my sisters-in-law flutter around like moths to a flame, saying things like, "This really is the best birthday cake ever, isn't it?"

This week:

Monday: Chicken roll ups (really, I'm not kidding this time), salad, onion/rice thing from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian before it goes back to the library.

Tuesday: Leftovers or freezer meal. I have a world class collection of Trader Joe's gnocchi in my freezer. I also was horrified and thrilled to discover a ton of frozen filets mignons in there. So to say goodbye to my 30s, I think we'll do filets with baked potatoes and creamed spinach. Easy, decadent, delicious, and definitely not turkey!

Wednesday: Totally going out to dinner. You only turn 40 once so I hope it's somewhere good! :-)

Thursday: Would you believe I still never made those Asian Turkey Burgers? This is definitely their night. But with chicken. Carrots and salad on the side, and either mashed potatoes or leftover rice thing.

Friday: Either some of those gnocchi from the freezer or out to dinner (yes, again, but it would be pizza night this time).

And--ta-dah!--here we are at the end of another NaBloPoMo. Aren't you glad I can take a break now? I am! And I'm sure my employer is too. Happy December!

Recipe for my Mother-in-law's Chocolate Chip Cake

"So you can bake a cake just like his mother's!!" she wrote.

1 box yellow cake mix
1 package instant vanilla pudding (I used the four-serving one)
4 eggs
1 cup water
1/2 cup Wesson oil (which I had to buy for this recipe)

Put all ingredients in large mixer bowl, beat 5-7 minutes.

Grate 1 bar German chocolate. Put half of this plus
1 Cup chocolate chips and fold in to batter.

Bake at 350 for 40-50 minutes in greased 9 X 13 pan.

Cool cake.
Sprinkle 1 Cup powdered sugar mixed with other half of shaved German chocolate bar on top of cake.

Notes: I had no idea what German chocolate was; I was ready to head to Trader Joe's and get something that looked Germanic. But it's actually over by the bakers' chocolate and comes in a bar not unlike that. You could probably substitute a Special Dark or similar, but this was awesome.
And, my husband likes mini chocolate chips and about 3/4 of the bag in this. Um, yum.
Finally, a whole cup of powdered sugar was way, way too much for me. I'd go for 1/4 to 1/2 next time. But it sure makes a fun "poof" on the candle blowing!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

SHS--What? Almost Christmas?

Ok, I know I have a Christmas countdown widget on my sidebar, but really. When did Christmas get to be flippin' four weeks away!? (That would be this week, as Advent starts tonight, obviously. But still.)

I had one bad off-the-wagon night on bedtime this week but otherwise did well. And the late night was when my husband and I started watching the Colbert Christmas Special which was utterly hilarious. I regret nothing.

Moving 30 minutes a day was harder as it was freezing, a short school week for kids but not a short work week for Dad, and my cold lingered. But I did get out four days, which is three more than I usually do. So that was mixed success.

This week, I hope to continue with both to some extent, but the focus must be on the house. We got the new TV, but haven't had time to rearrange and build the furniture that goes around and with it. A (family) crew is coming to the house to help--cousins to run the boys, beefy nephews to move heavy pieces, patient readers of Ikea directions to help put things together. And the house is such a mess, there's nowhere to put the stuff that needs to come off the shelves temporarily, let alone decorate for Christmas.

So, fifteen minutes a day this week has to go in to decluttering. It's not enough, but it will be enough of a start, I hope, to do more of the decorating I want to do by next week, and to take advantage of the family work crew. And meanwhile, the Advent wreath and calendars are ready, which is the most critical, and...my house isn't cluttered outside! And it's in the 50s here so this is as good as outside decorating weather gets. Wish us luck!

Friday, November 28, 2008

FFOF 57

Wanna play? Go here!

#1. What’s your favorite carbonated beverage?

Oh, easy. Coca-Cola Classic decaffeinated. Which is really tied with the regular CocaCola classic. I don't drink aspartame so most diet sodas don't work for me. Also high on the list: Orangina and the Peach Pear Italian Soda from Archer Farms (Target's house brand). I know soda is so, so bad for me but I cannot deal without the bubbles for long. It is the hardest Lenten sacrifice I do (and I do a bunch!).

#2. What’s your favorite spicy food?

It's funny, I crave really complex, layered flavors, but not necessarily spicy ones. I love palak paneer and some other Indian dishes, which I suppose is the closest to spicy that I get. Even then, though, I'm putting raita all over everything to tone it down.

#3. How do you handle hot dishes? Oven mitt, pot holder, towel?

Oven mitt. I am too uncoordinated to try anything else. Or rather, to succeed at anything else. I have, in fact, tried.

#4. Ice cream. How do you like yours?

Straight in a bowl, after resting on the counter for 10 minutes, unless it's from my favorite parlor in the mountains, in which case, a sugar cone please. Favorite flavors are many. I love pumpkin ice cream and peach ice cream from Bassett's. My old-time favorite is mint chocolate chip. My new favorite is Moosetracks. My favorite of the 31 flavors is pecan praline. And I adore Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt. And I cannot buy Haagen Dazs Dolce de Leche.

Still in a food mood from Thanksgiving? Try your own!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For Thee, I Am Thankful

Not much today, except to focus on two things for which I am grateful.

First, I filled my tank yesterday--for $25. Gas dropped to $1.89 at my favorite station. It's still at $2.04 at most places around here. Nerd that I am, I figured out that the gas price differential is enough to offset the further drive to this station. On the way to my favorite place, there's a former gas station that went out of business before my three year old was born. The old prices are still up there, with regular starting at $1.67.

I remember that it was before the little one was born because his birth came at the time of a gas price spike. He was a week late, and as my husband and I drove to the hospital for the checkup that became my induction, I noted that gas at the station we passed on the way was at $2.65, a good price for that month, with a wry smile as we passed the $1.67 sign too.

While my second son was born, Hurricane Katrina happened. (Nothing like thinking of women laboring in hellish conditions to make you feel like a complete wuss.) But when we came home, it was hard to believe it was only three days later; gas at the station was now $3.65.

It kept climbing from there, and eventually settled back down, of course. And even then, I took real pride in price hunting, and rarely paid over $3/gallon for gas. Of course, this year, it spiked to around $4/gallon and the hits couldn't be avoided. I was frustrated; while milk and coke and moisturizer were way, way more than $4/gallon, I felt like if I were paying that much for gas, I wanted at least $1 of that to be a tax for something useful, like rebuilding social security, or, you know, roads. Instead, I was making the richest company and richest country in the history of the world even richer, and that didn't feel good at all.

I never thought I'd see sub-$2 gas again. And now that it's here, I am thankful. I can only imagine how thankful people are who drive more than I do, or are paid less than I am. And while I still feel the same about a gas tax, and pray that this doesn't make people forget about hybrids and other alternative fuel technologies, I'm going to enjoy this little respite where, for the first time in a long time, that defunct sign just doesn't look quite as crazy.

************

I know. I'm a mom and a wife and I have a house with a mortgage that's current and a family with an all out feast coming up later today and I'm grateful for gas prices?! How...cold.

Of course I'm grateful for my kids. I loved Emily's post at Mothers of Brothers, where she wrote about being grateful for the luxury of having small things to gripe about, and feel the same way. The boys know I'm thankful for them (I tell them every night as part of our good-night ritual). And my husband ought to know I'm grateful for him too. But today is his birthday, and it makes me extra grateful for the amazing opportunity I had: to spend another year of his life with him.

For the two of you who may not know, I was in love with my husband for ten years before we got engaged. I noticed him by the lockers one day when I was a sophomore and he was a junior and thought he was totally cute. I joined the newspaper to be near him. (Of course, we never really talked at all. I couldn't breathe when he was near me, let alone form sentences.) After many letters (remember them?) back and forth when he was at college, we became friends. And a mere seven years after that, we got engaged.

There was no end to my joy. I had studied everything about him before he knew how to spell my name. I knew in my heart I could never get married until he was married because I didn't think I could truly commit to someone else if there were even a tiny hope of his availability.

Today, he still makes me swoon. Watching him do anything with the kids takes my breath away. Even a trip to the recycling center becomes a multi-modal learning opportunity and chance for fun. He is the only one the dog will come to. He thinks I'm crazy when I tell him things like that I still wake up in the middle of the night just to look at him and marvel that we are together.

Not everyone gets this. Not everyone gets this for as long as we have had. He is still my dream come true, but now in ways even bigger and better than I could have dreamed--and I have quite an imagination.

For who he is, and for being lucky enough to be his wife, and getting to spend every day with one of my favorite people in the world, I am thankful. Happy birthday, honey. (If you ever read this!)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

WFMW--vertical tree lights

Wow. This one is more of a paybacks--in a great, slobberingly grateful kind of way--to whoever it was who posted about this last year.

Stringing and unstringing the lights was enough to unhinge my husband, last year and every year we have been together. We would put off buying the tree and once it was purchased, it would usually sit, naked, on our porch while my husband glowered at it, just dreading the Ordeal of the Lights.

I got some of those light storage wheels (for way less than $50, let the record show) a few years ago at the dearly departed and sorely missed Organized Living, and that helped. But we were really to the point of just saying, let's buy the cheapie lights and throw them away with the tree every year. This from a woman who has trouble throwing away a grocery list and is a compulsive recycler. It was that bad.

But last year, when we had really put it off to the last minute (Christmas Eve at 4pm, anyone? Yes, church bells were ringing as we were pulling out of the lot). The kids were excited and so were we, but my husband's jaw was tighter and tighter...and then I remembered.

"Honey, I read online someone who said they strung their lights vertically and it made it much easier to get them off, at least."

Pause. Pause. And then, from my husband, "That might work. And it can't be worse. Let's try."

It took a little bit of fooling around to get the depth we wanted and to figure out how to secure them without gravity's assistance. But eventually it worked out, and with one minor exception of a little bunch of lights falling off at the bottom of one branch, it looked good--or at least remarkably similar to other years. The drop hadn't happened yet when this picture was taken. (And please note the sincere decorating of the tree, which was mostly accomplished by our then 4 and 2 year old sons. With a few "high branch" exceptions, we just put the hooks on the ornaments and they did the whole thing, giddy with excitement and enthusiasm as dusk settled on our porch on Christmas Eve. I will treasure that part of the memory forever, too.)

But the proof was in the pudding when the time came to take them down. I got all the ornaments off, then took the box to the basement as there was a threat of rain. (Which might have, you know, damaged the cardboard box we keep the unbreakable plastic ornaments in.) By the time I got back to the porch, he had all the lights off the tree. All of them. 10 strings. In the time it took to get to and from the basement of a split level. And he said, "We will never do this another way again."

So thank you, whoever you were. You truly saved us many unpleasant hours last Christmas and many in to the future. And if you need to string and unstring lights on your tree--think about it for this year!

So thank you, whoever you are who posted that. For more good ideas, go see Shannon at Rocks in my Dryer!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Update: Cauliflower Found!

Gold star to the commenter who guessed the veggie stand that needed police yesterday!

And many thanks to the indispensable Janssen's. Had to cross state lines to get it, but have you ever seen your kids jump up and down with excitement over cauliflower? Check me off as someone who never thought she'd see it, but there it was.

And look at that--it matches my blog!

The Hunt for the Blue Cauliflower

Oh, Blogville, you torment me so. My boys saw this recipe for cauliflower gratin, right when I was looking for that next veggie to bring to Thanksgiving. And they were hooked. A blue vegetable?! Really? No, seriously?

Our CSA and beloved little town market had the orange. But blue? Nowhere to be found outside New York City, I'm afraid. But we did have a ball at all the little fruit and veggie places I know.

My all time favorite, which is EVERYBODY's all time favorite, was packed. It is, after all, just about Thanksgiving. Have you ever seen a policeman doing traffic duty in a veggie stand's parking lot? Welcome to our world yesterday. Alas, this awesome place did me no good in the blue cauliflower department. But the 79 cent avocados practically made me weep with joy. And the Del Monte Gold pineapples! They really are the best. And the blackberries were consumed practically before we got home. So the trip certainly wasn't wasted. But the search for the blue cauliflower continues.

Whole Foods didn't have it. Wegmans let me down, though one did have green cauliflower, which might be an interesting counterpoint to the orange. The little health food store didn't have it. And my cheap butcher? Ha! I'm lucky he has anything that isn't bread or meat.

The silver lining? My boys were actually excited about trying to find a vegetable. They were all about the thrill of the hunt, and trying the other produce we found along the way. Neither liked egg nog, but both tried it. (Favorite was the older one: "It tastes pretty good, but I don't like the way it smells.") And the older one was snarfing berries from me left and right. The younger one continues on his no-plant-based-foods-except-rolls strike. If he eats any more cheese, mice will start sniffing him out. He's even eliminated the once-reliable hummus and avocado (not together) and strawberries from his food repetoire. He'll help me make anything; he loves to be in the kitchen. The actual eating, though, is a bit of an issue.

But they were fun company yesterday and handled the disappointment well when we didn't find any. (And there really was disappointment! Over cauliflower!) The search continues...

Meanwhile, do check out 100 Days to Christmas today. They are in pre-Thanksgiving mode today, which is great for the timing impaired like me. It was a help to me in realizing that despite the fun chase yesterday, I still don't have some crucial ingredients for things I am bringing to the feast, and some good tips on how to get ready (pre-chop veggies, etc.). And, if you leave a comment over there, you'll be eligible to win a WrapSack--and I have to tell you, I am loving mine! It's a strong, light, full-sized tote that zips up smaller than my wallet (which, ok, isn't hard...it's a big wallet), and since it fits in my purse, I see it when I check out and actually remember to use it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Glamour Gift of the Year

Well. For those of you who have been following 100 Days to Christmas, you are well aware last week was Clean the House Week. While not nearly as involved as the Grand Plan crew would have you do, it was more than I could take--and not just because of my small boys and aversion to housecleaning.

We got a new sewer line last week. The gift that keeps on giving!

Understand something here. We've been in this house for about eight years now. Part of why we bought it was that it was in great shape--newish roof, sound appliances and systems, etc. There were things we wanted to do, but little we *had* to do.

Until the first baby was born.

And really, even before that. The summer I was pregnant with my first child, I was living in the only room with air conditioning--out bedroom. All The Time. I would make dinner and take it upstairs. I would really leave only for work and critical household maintenance (laundry, throwing dishes at the dishwasher, etc.). So, we got central air. That was good.

The next project was also baby-related; all the relatives came, which was great; but a sizable number are over 80 years old. At the time, our front lawn was covered in the horrible little spiky balls that fall from our tree, and had a few amateurishly placed flagstones as steps up to our front door. I was petrified watching everyone come in, thinking I'd need to call an ambulance because the geriatric set wanted to see my baby. It took lots of the joy out of the visits for me. So we hardscaped. We put in new steps, with lighting; a new landing at the base of the steps; a new retaining wall, and, soon after, a new driveway. These were all great quality of life improvements for us and all who visit.

A continuing problem, though, was our sewer line. Our powder room always seemed like an afterthought. The sewer line was built with no trap or access spout, so to clean out the sewer, the toilet had to be pulled from the floor. By the time we moved in, the wax seal wasn't even there anymore, and the top of the tank was mismatched, probably because the original crashed in one of the pulls.

The sewer line needed snaking about once or twice a year for the first few years. Then it was three times a year. Then quarterly. And something had to give.

We had several companies come by and give estimates; all included displacing some of the hardscaping, which gave me tremendous agita. But one--our plumber, of all people--said he knew a way to do it with minimal excavation. We crossed our fingers and took a chance.

Well. Thank goodness we did. The long story short is that a job that was supposed to take one hour one afternoon and part of the next day ballooned in to a three-day song and dance. It turned out our sewer line doesn't go straight from the house to the street. It meanders under our driveway and takes some odd turns until it spills out essentially under our next door neighbor's house. The usual depth of a sewer line is 7 feet. Ha! Try 11. They thought they'd need 40 feet of pipe. They used 78. Did I mention it snowed? (Fortunately not the fabu little 4-inch surprise, but heavy flurries that couldn't have been fun in a squishy 11 foot hole.) The cheery demeanor of the digging crew turned grim, and our usually chatty plumber made himself scarce. As it turned out, we had chunks of the sewer pipe that were completely enclosed by tree roots, none of which the camera had captured.

But, all was well that ended well. There were a few little snafus, but the end of the story is that we have a sewer line that actively drains water. I've never seen a utility sink drain this fast in a house where I live. It's kind of thrilling.

And, all in one post, that's what I'm getting for Christmas. It's also what my husband is getting for Christmas. And I thought it was my birthday gift, but then I got surprised with Madonna tickets! It was an awesome concert--she is unbelievable live.

So that's why I didn't clean up last week. I might have made an effort, but with the dirt and mud being tracked in, it didn't make much sense. On the plus side, I got food prep for the holiday done (things in the freezer, ready to go for that day), and only have one more thing to buy for the family presents. In looking for the boots and snowpants, I also got to see what holiday wear we have for the boys (critical point: none in size five or six, so off to a sale for me, to find something for PickyBoy that we can both live with). (And don't get me wrong, I admire him for sticking to his own fashion sense but it can make some things tricky.) And--finally--we got the Christmas card designed and ready to go, in time to use the coupon even!

So, I feel pretty well back on track, though there's lots of re-placing to do. (Bookshelves needed moving, etc.) Hope your holiday prep is on target and leaving you cheery about the upcoming times instead of stressed!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

MPM--Healthy by Mistake Edition

Despite my cold, I actually got a lot of cooking done last week. I had borrowed How to Cook Everything Vegetarian from the library, Mark Bittman's followup to the book that taught me to cook.

I also did my pre-Thanksgiving-dinner (turkey breast, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc.) for the church (and us). In a moment of inspiration and meat on sale (unlike the turkey--see below), I got the stuff for my favorite crock pot stroganoff, which replaced the chicken roll-ups. Since it can't be easier, I included the recipe below.

Rachael Ray's turkey shepherd's pie was a hit again, which was somewhat of a surprise, since I was sick and not paying attention. I only bought 1 lb of ground turkey (just as well, it was expensive) instead of the 2 the recipe calls for. So I thought I'd do some extra carrots and onions. I chopped them in the food processor (I was sick and looking for shortcuts). They were so little, they didn't look like enough, so I added more. Because they were chopped, my boys couldn't pick them out of the main dish, as they have sometimes been known to do. But they still enjoyed the flavor, and ate enough for dessert. (Well, one did, anyway. The little one is on a real strike here.) I also have a stuffy nose and added more pepper and Worcestershire than usual. Still a huge hit overall, and even healthier with the extra veggies. Bonus.

Meals for this week:

Monday: Asian Turkey Burgers that I never got to last week (recipe from Dinners By Design; I'll post it if they are good), salad, rice, carrots of unknown recipe (I have some cool rainbow ones from the CSA that I'm trying to do justice to), salad

Tuesday: freezer meal. Probably Trader Joe's flatbread, salad, and maybe the little veggie dumplings. Yum.

Wednesday: Pre-Thanksgiving fast. Kidding! Leftovers, though, as I'll be getting ready for the next day.

Thursday: Thanksgiving. I'm in charge of carrot mousse and a veggie TBD...and a birthday cake for my husband! He wants a chocolate chip cake. Any suggestions for recipes would be appreciated. For the TBD veggie, I'm toying with creamed spinach...though I seem to recall that wasn't a hit last time someone brought it. I'm also considering these brussels sprouts from 101 Cookbooks, or possibly her pumpkin salad recipe since I have a spare pumpkin from my CSA hanging around here, or maybe even her green beans with leeks since I love leeks, and who is eating the vegetables anyway, and don't the brussels sprouts serve you right for dissing the creamed spinach?! I digress.

Friday: Not-leftover leftovers from Thanksgiving. And really, pizza for the boys and something yummy for us as I'll be taking my husband out for dinner for his birthday to an undisclosed location.

Crockpot recipe below. Have a good week and a happy Thanksgiving! For more meal planning ideas and inspiration, head over to OrgJunkie's!

************************************************
Easy Beef Stroganoff (adapted from Fix It and Forget It for Entertaining)

1 can Campbell's Cream of Mushroom (lowfat works fine too)
1 can Campbell's Beef Broth
2 lbs stew meat (beef chunks)
1 container mushrooms, sliced (optional) (or get the container of presliced mushrooms, that works too)
1 cup sour cream (lowfat works fine too)
1 bag egg noodles

Combine soups in crockpot. Add meat.
Cook on high for 3-4 hours. Add mushrooms.
Cook on low for 3-4 more hours.
When you are getting ready for dinner, cook the noodles according to package directions.
When you put the water on, stir in 1 cup of sour cream to crockpot.
When noodles are done, drain well and add to crockpot. (Note: if crockpot is small, start with half a package of noodles.)
Stir to mix, and serve.
Variation: the original recipe calls for only 1 lb of meat, but that always feels chintzy to me.
There might be healthier noodles you can use but I haven't found any that work well yet. If someone else has success let me know! Meanwhile, egg noodles were on a big sale this week so that was inspirational.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Smart Habit Saturday--update

So, here's what I learned about myself this week.

1) I do better on memes when I'm not the only one doing them.

2) When I have a nasty cold, I am more likely to go to bed at a decent hour anyway.

3) If I turn off the computer, I am more likely to go to bed at a decent hour.

I would not necessarily call this week a huge success; one night, I collapsed on the sofa next to my husband, watching the 10 o'clock news, and didn't wake up again until almost 1am, but the cuddles were worth it. I didn't consider that night a failure.

So. This week, I'm going to try to continue with the decent bedtime hours. I'm also going to add "move 30 extra minutes a day." I had tried to get that started right when my cold hit and between exhaustion and stuffy head, the poor dog was lucky to get around the block once a day. But I'm getting back there. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

FFOF 56

Here we are again! Wanna play? Go here.

#1. What’s the worst tasting food you’ve ever eaten?

Hmm...a tie, between my beloved aunt's mincemeat pie (I was 10 and it had so much alcohol in it my mouth was burning!) or the hamloaf my mother used to make. I have no idea why I was so grossed out by it...it should have been a total winner. But I just found it nasty.

Texture is another whole issue...and so are looks. (On the first night of our Italian honeymoon on a teeny isle on Lago Maggiore, an appetizer was "fish of the lake," prepared breaded. I was imagining a filet. But no, it was, in fact, the fish of the lake, small feeder-goldfish sized, tossed in some breadcrumbs and flash fried whole. Might have been delicious but I'll never know.)

#2. Share a funny or embarassing story about a meal you’re made.

Oh, good Lord, where to begin? The time I found wheat germ cookie recipes to use up the wheat germ in my cabinet only to learn my wheat germ had gone rancid when it was time to add it to the batter? The time we made a pound cake for dessert for my husband's family for Mother's Day and it would have been better suited to being a brick for the house? The list goes on. I am not an accomplished cook...there is a reason we always are in charge of bringing beer to family events!

#3. What food do you burn or have problems cooking most often?

Well, I finally mastered fried eggs (new non-stick pan helped a lot with that); currently it's anything in my slow cooker, which (ironically) cooks faster than my old one. I had to chuck an entire pork roast last week. That hurt. I'm also paranoid about undercooking meat in any form and have gone through three different meat thermometers this year alone. It's amazing we're not vegetarian yet with my meat issues, really.

#4. Name two foods you’ll be eating on this Thanksgiving.

Carrot mousse and the gooey sweet potato thing my sister in law Kathy makes. As she likes to point out, in a bowl, it's a vegetable. In a pie shell, it's dessert!

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and no whammies in the kitchen!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bloggy Updates #2

I am often curious about people's blogrolls. Are these people they know? How did their paths cross? How did they find the blogs? So I'm using some of these days to continue highlighting some of my friends with blogs on the side of my page.

Before the word "blog" had even entered my vocabulary as anything permanent, as opposed to a little computer gibbit that might or might not be a flash in the pan, my excellent early-adopter friend, Shelley, started one as a way to keep people posted on her job hunt. She and her partner are excellent savers and had stored up cash in their dual-salary years to allow Shelley to stay home for the first three years of their baby's life. Then, it was time to head back to work, and Shelley kept us all up to date on how the search was going through her blog. It was a great way to let people check in when they had time and yet not have to keep re-typing over and over and not having to say, "Where did we leave off?" I thought it was genius--par for the course for Shelley, though. We originally met off the web years ago when she was one of my first admissions mentors. She was always honest, true to herself, positive, and looking for ways to improve systems. I was crushed when she announced she was leaving, but even there, she blazed a trail for those beyond her to follow as she was the first long-timer in memory to leave not only without incurring the boss's wrath, but actually getting a positive recommendation and pledge of support from him. I am fortunate to have had several excellent mentors in my field, but none taught me more than Shelley did. These days, she's probably blogging about her family (job stuff tends to go on a different site), or showing off excellent photos, or sharing poetry (mostly haiku). You can check her out at But Wait, There's More!

One blog on my blogroll that bears little resemblance in content to the others is Whispers in the Loggia. Like But Wait, it was started before I really even understood what a blog was all about. The reason it is on my blogroll is because it's actually the labor of love of one of my former workstudy students. He was always one of my favorites; a hard worker who never forgot a face (or, unlike me, the name that went with it). He has had a lifelong love of the Catholic church, which, in classic Catholic fashion, has been repaid alternately with rich blessings and deep acceptance, or cold shoulders and cutting cruelty. When the church finally decides priests can marry, he'll be an excellent pastor. Until then, Whispers is his love letter to the church--gossip without meanness, and a way to get the news of the upper Catholic echelons without the filters of the other ways church news comes to the people. He has been accused of being a "front" for disgruntled priests, and a front for the church itself--a good measure of his even-handedness. He even gets hits from Vatican City, which doesn't surprise me in the least. I consider myself a pretty devout Catholic, but lots of his topics are too arcane for me and get me thinking of angels on pins. But just when I'm in too deep to church stuff, he reminds me that his other love is one of mine: the city of Philadelphia. He texted me from third base when the Phils won the Series, and introduced us to one of our favorite holiday events, the Mummers' Mass in Philadelphia. My boys adore him, and even thought they might only see him once a year, they are instantly comfortable with him and chatting as though they saw him last week. Like Shelley, he was one of the great blessings from my former job, and I'm delighted his blog helps us stay in touch.

One final blog associated with my last job isn't even "written" by the person I worked with; it's Tails of Bella, a Therapy Dog. Written from the perspective of an adorable and supremely well-trained Havanese, Bella has quite a career in pet therapy going. Her human companion/typist is also someone I used to work with who eventually left to pursue her EdD--and, as it turns out, a great life working with her therapy dog. Bella has gained some notoriety already, and is going to be on TV this Saturday! My DVR is set and ready to go (since I hope to not be up at 7am). And, since I always wanted a therapy dog but never have had one with the right temperament, it's fun to live vicariously through her blog.

More to come in a further installment!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

WFMW--The Elf on the Shelf

Readers of a certain age, you will remember the little kewpie-esque elves, who were all over Christmases in the late 1960s and early '70s. Usually hugging their little knees, they smiled merrily, in a rainbow of era-appropriate colors (my favorite was teal).

Well, that little elf has come back in the stroke of genius of one mom, who wrote a book called The Elf on the Shelf. The story is, this is YOUR family's elf. He can't talk to you, but he's here to watch the kids and report back to Santa on activities both naughty AND nice. You get to name him, and then he hides somewhere different every day to observe. At night he flies back to the North Pole. And in the morning, he's somewhere new. (Usually. Sometimes, he--ahem--really liked the place he was yesterday and wants to stay in that spot an extra day.)

My husband and I laughed that it should be called The Snitch in the House instead of The Elf on the Shelf, but wow, oh, wow, that was the elf who saved Christmas for us last year. My oldest was in a bit of a defiant stage at the time, but when reminded of our elf, he would self-correct as fast as a four-year-old knows how. It was quite a sight to see. My only regret was that he had to go back to the North Pole with Santa, and I think he's eager to see Halloween this year. It's a fun family tradition for those who "do" Santa, as (aside from the behavior reminders) it was fun every day for the boys to come downstairs and look for him, wondering just where that elf went.

Oh, and our elf? He was named Howie. Howie was short for the "real" name our older son gave him: "How are we ever going to find that elf in the house?" Hey, it's like a dog show, right? Where the big long names boil down to "Fluffy." Same here.

The best part: right after Halloween this year, the older one, who was the one who needed the long arm of Santa, started asking about Howie and when he was coming! We just wrote to Santa this week to ask for Howie. Now if I can just find him ASAP...it feels like rushing the season a bit to me but if he wants the elf, I'm on it!

What works for you in the holidays? Go to Shannon's blog and find out what's working for others!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Least Favorite Readings Ever.

Now that the boys are in CCD, church is almost like a date. We can focus on the Word and each other and know that the boys are safe and sound. (Well, except for that incident with the four inch bruise on the little guy's head from the clunk after the teacher was swinging him around. Not that she mentioned it. Until I asked why the left side of his face was turning yellow and purple.)

But every now and again, I'm wildly frustrated by being reminded of what I loathe about being a Catholic. Like when pre-elections, they go all gooey eyed over the unborn babies. And no one thinks twice about encouraging us to elect the most trigger-happy governor in history. 'Cause, I guess those guys were born and had their chance. So we are to be pro-life for the unborn, and the rest are just supposed to figure it out. That drives. me. crazy.

Then Sunday's readings are three of my least favorite of all time. The first one was about a wife's value. I've never liked how the author waxes on about the wonders a great wife can do with wool and flax. But when I'm also in a bad housekeeping spot...well, I just felt like I was failing on all counts in the wife department. Then the second reading compared the return of the Messiah with labor pains. They come in the night, and there is no escape! So there was another thing I didn't feel like remembering, brought back in vivid detail.

Finally, the Gospel was my all time least favorite parable, about the master who went on a long trip leaving three servants with talents "according to their abilities." One got five, one got two, and one got one. The first two guys went out and doubled their master's talents. The third guy, fearing what would happen if he gambled and lost, buried the talent so he could at least give it back without any loss.

The master comes home, and calls them in to hear what they've done with his money. He tells the first two, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, share your master's joy." And the third, who (pretty boldly) explains he knows the master "reaps where he does not sew" and has a harsh temper, explains he buried his so he wouldn't lose any and hands it back. The master loses it, casts out the servant, and pretty much proves himself to be all the servant fears. Which never seems fair to me; the master even says he gave them talents according to ability so why would he take it out on the least talented? (so to speak)

But the priest had a different take on it today, which I really needed. First, he brought barbells to show what a talent actually was. It was 80 pounds of gold! Um, hello, and this guy was just handing them out before he went on break. No wonder poor guy #3 buried his. I'd be petrified if someone gave me 80 lbs of gold to look after. The priest, though, saw the master as generous and trusting, allowing his servants to manage these parts of his holdings, and giving them the opportunity to show what they could do. He pointed out the first two servants didn't seem to think this master was such a bad guy, and they were excited to take up the challenge and see what they could do. And we have no idea what the third guy was afraid of. Failure? Success? So the priest asked us what we would be doing differently if we had no fear.

Wow. No fear. In such a time of economic uncertainty. In a season where my kids want more more more but me to work less less less. At a time when, by all accounts, I'm at best at the halfway point in my life.

I don't want to go all Erma Bombeck (though I adore her and her "I wish I'd burned the candle shaped like a rose instead of letting it melt in the attic" essay). It was easy to hear the lightbulbs going off over people's heads as the priest talked about his first pastor, who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted, and delighted in his successes, and counseled him in his failures. I thought about my former boss, who was not someone I found it easy to work for, but from whom I learned a ton. And one thing I did learn there was that if you didn't ask, you didn't get.

Which all comes back to these readings. I didn't want to confront this set of readings, and to his great good credit and good humor, neither did the priest. ("It would be presumptuous of me to expound on the virtues of a wife, and childbearing isn't my specialty either.") But his focus on the last one helped change my mind, at least a little.

What would you do if you had no fear? Right now all my answers center on cash. Which isn't really the problem. But it's a good brainteaser, one I'm still working on two days later.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh, Christmas Cards, It Is You I Fear the Most

Time for the weekly Christmas check-in!


Last week's assignments on the 100 Days blog were met with mixed success.

One of my favorites was encouraging us to start a "Sunday Soup" tradition. Our former neighbors used to do this. They had a big family and just a standing invitation to all they knew: chili and something else would always be on for Sunday afternoons. Bring something that goes with soup and show up! It was a great tradition. Alas, my children will not touch soup for reasons I cannot quite figure out. I thought is was their desperate fear of anything hot (not unlike their mother, the boys let their hot chocolate come closer to the temperature of chocolate milk before drinking) but they didn't touch any of my summer soups either. Bummer. We did use that idea for the last several years for my father-in-law's January 1 birthday party. We fired up the crock pots and started a "soup-er" new year's party. Those were always hits.

My other favorite of the week was a reminder to observe Veterans' Day. Our county seat has an awesome parade, with veterans from World War II to Iraqi Freedom marching down the street, with serenades from just about every high school (and middle school!) marching band in our county. I love to go and always cry. Which is twisted, as I'm a committed pacifist. But I know somewhere in my peacenik soul that I can afford to be a peacenik because of the sacrifices of our armed services. So while I take brownies to the Women In Black, who have held a silent protest on Friday nights at the train station since the Iraqi invasion began, I also send emails to my friends who are veterans and find flags for my kids to wave at the parade. I know, I know the story of the guy who wore blue on top and gray on bottom during the Civil War. (One side shot him in the arm, the other in the @ss.)

With two weeks to Thanksgiving, it's time to get serious. We went to the supermarket to buy all kinds of things to push our totals up to $300 for the turkey. (I know, it's probably cheaper to just buy the turkey! But it was easy enough to switch my shopping to this place for a few weeks.) We are donating lots of cranberry sauce, stuffing, and other items for Thanksgiving at church this week. I'm doing my turkey-breast-dinner baking tomorrow to prepare meals to drop off next Sunday. And I have been storing up carrots as they go on sale for the big mousse de carrottes baking. And I loved the idea of the "thankful" exercise. We didn't do it last week but I'm hoping our Sunday dinner will give us the opportunity.

Then there was the (gulp) six weeks to Christmas gut check. We're actually in pretty good shape. I have to get out a list of what my kids want to the relatives. (Answer: is it in the T@rget catalog and does it have wheels?) I am just about done with things for the boys. My husband and I are not doing much for each other because we are spending on the house instead. (Ho ho ho...Santa is bringing us a new sewer line. And maybe, if there's anything left over, new closet doors!) Oh, and of course the TV is going to be good fodder for a few birthdays to come. And the theme gifts for the family just got "downsized" to $50 per family instead of $100, for which I am wildly grateful, and which means I'm pretty close to done. (Now I just need a good source for cheap, good, reusable water bottles.)

And, ah, yes, the Christmas cards. Well, Snapfish has been busy this week. (Beware the trap of teaming up with Oprah!) But I think we have the photos ready to go to make the cards, and then to order them. And I kinda skipped the "address the cards" part since our cards aren't made yet, but it did occur to me that I don't need the cards to make the labels. So that's a job for tomorrow, maybe. Of course, that's after the job of clearing out the laundry room so they can redig the sewer line, which, I'm sorry to say, has to come first.

So. With six weeks to go, I need to finish the group gifts; figure out teacher/babysitter gifts; wrap; oh, and of course decorate. But lots of that can wait.

Finally, we got baking this week. I didn't necessarily mean to, but my little guy wanted to make brownies. And cookies. And a cake. So we did. Alas, the cookies had to be tossed (literally) since I poured in the wheat germ without realizing it had gone rancid. (I have no idea what I was doing with wheat germ to begin with, but finally found a recipe to use it and it was too late. So--wait for it--yes, I bought more to make the recipes.) The backup was that we did have break-n-bake Christmas cookies, so that was a viable alternative. We'll go back to the wheat germ recipe soon. And I got a tray of sausage balls made and frozen; they'll just need baking.

That's it for us for now. But I must say, my WrapSack came and I adore it and am hoping to work something of it in to my group gifts for the year. The one I received zips around like a small wallet, but when unzipped, a shopping bag style tote comes out, and the "case" part of it becomes the bottom. It's a very clever design, a cute fabric, and a great way to tuck an extra bag in my purse since while I am pretty good about remembering my bags at the supermarket, I'm lousy at thinking about it at places like CVS or T@rget. Here's hoping this helps!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

MPM--Winners and Losers Edition

So, here we are, ready to begin a new week. Here's how last week went.

Happily, tacos are still a huge hit and can be totally counted upon to feed my older son. In fact, he asked for 237 tacos! But I made a deal with him on leftovers night that I would feed him tacos until there were no more. Luckily for me, he took the deal.

Remember the crockpot autumn pork roast? Alas, I'm not sure what happened to it. I think my overheating crock pot struck again. Even on low, it was way too long and my stomach still rolls a bit at the thought of the smell. So that, alas, was a loser, which is a shame because it sounded so so good. Might try again cooking just in a regular oven instead, because I have the other half-bag of cranberries and not much to do with them (except for the totally tempting Smitten Kitchen thing).

But the winner to come out of that unexpected unfortunate mess? The Tandoori-Style Chicken Burgers. They were awesome. SO easy, I could pull them together when I realized the pork was going nowhere. I went light on the spices, which was a good thing for our tastes. Next time I will add more scallions; and it should be noted, I used a pound of ground chicken breast rather than the 1.5 lbs of the chicken thighs that are suggested. This saved lots of time. Next time, too, a raita recipe might be a nice compliment as well.

And in the not-as-great-as-I'd-hoped category was the savory bread recipe from Dorie Greenspan from Bon Appetit. After The Best Babysitter in the World kindly shipped us dried pears from Manhattan since they are nowhere to be found in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was eager to try. We fried up the bacon, used the good cheese, chopped the pears and bickered over the rest since both my older son and I loved them plain. The dough came together nicely, baked up beautifully...and in the end, lacked the punch I was hoping for. I don't think I did anything wrong, except that maybe this needs a really, really strong cheese to work, and I was not wasting great cheese on an unknown recipe. Meanwhile, it was fun to do, it looked great, and I love the idea of the one with black olives and parmesan, so now that I own a loaf pan, I will probably try again. And not skimp on the cheese. Ironically, the hit of the day? The pears. My older son and I both adored them and finished off the extras before the bread was done baking. Yum.


On to this week.

Monday: Rachael Ray's Turkey Shepherd's Pie, salad

Tuesday: Chicken Roll-ups, broccoli (with pepper and olive oil, popped in the microwave for 3 minutes), mashed potatoes

Wednesday: Asian Turkey Burgers (recipe from Dinners By Design; I'll post it if they are good), salad, rice, carrots of unknown recipe (I have some cool rainbow ones from the CSA that I'm trying to do justice to)

Thursday: leftovers

Friday: Real Simple Ravioli (either this one or this one)

Or, maybe a Friday football game as the nephews' school keeps winning. However, they keep winning in crummy weather so I have a backup plan ready.

Best part about this week: I have everything I need except for some of the meat, so it should be a one-trip-to-the-market week. Woo-hoo! Have a good week. Want more meal ideas? Go here for OrgJunkie's MPM list!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Smart Habit Saturday

Once upon a time in Blogville, there lived a meme called Smart Habits Saturday. It wasn't a very big meme, like Menu Planning Monday or Works for Me Wednesday, but it was a small meme of self-improvement...or maybe a meme of small self-improvements is a better description. The person who ran the carnival went on hiatus, so I did too, but I think it's time to get back to it as I am slipping in to old ways around here.

The idea of SHS was to take one small positive change and do it every day for a week or more until it was a smart habit. Drinking more water and 5-15 minutes a day decluttering were favorites (and not just of mine). But it was a way to put out there what you wanted to get done and to be held somewhat accountable for it.

Even though the carnival is still on break, I need to revive it for myself. And while the water and the decluttering could use work too, I am going to start with going to bed before midnight. This shouldn't be as hard as it is for me. I love love love love love to sleep. But I also love being alone. And I had kids that I nursed exclusively for six months each and longer than that overall. (TMI? Sorry. It is relevant, though, really.) I was sort of getting back on track from the first, who was never a great sleeper unless he was nestled between the two of us, sleeping in the exact same position as his father, when the second was born. By then I was so desperate for time to myself, and so sleep deprived that it really became just a little easier to stay up for the 1am feeding than to try to go to sleep between 9-1 and hoist myself out of bed again. It seemed crueler to myself to do that.

So I started staying up. My husband would dutifully troop off to bed, but I'd grab some DVR time or some computer time, or read one of the zillions of things around here that I want to read and never get to.

Which brings us to now. I haven't nursed anyone for well over a year now. And yet, the 1am habit continues. I can practically hear my circa-January-2006 self screaming at my today-self, "WHAT IN THE SAM HILL ARE YOU THINKING?!?!? You CAN go to bed for hours on end and you are CHOOSING not to? Can you come back here then and take care of this baby while I get some rest, please????" So many nights I was desperately trying to stay awake in the glider, staring at the clock, willing myself not to fall over from exhaustion and hurt the baby. And now here I am, bringing it on myself, except without the baby part.

So I don't know what my problem is except that I am in a bad habit. So I'm going to try for a better one this week and be in bed before midnight. That's it...just an hour earlier. Eleven would be better but that would involve finding the remote for the TV in the bedroom so I could watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report there. And that might be a bit too ambitious for me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

FFOF 55--Thanksgiving Edition

Here we are, in high gear for Thanksgiving. This weekend will be my "practice" session with the results off to Aid for Friends, so I'm thinking of all this anyway!

#1. Stuffing. Boxed or from scratch?

Always the Pepperidge Farm blue bag, with long-sauteed celery and onion made for it first. Yum. And while I might cook it under a turkey breast, never in. Yecch.

#2. If you were served the perfect Thanksgiving dinner what would it be?

Turkey breast, no skin. Thick, creamy gravy. Stuffing as described above. Mashed sweet potatoes with the marshmallows on top. Mashed regular potatoes as well. Salad with craisins, pears, pecans, gorgonzola, and shallot dressing from How to Make Everything by Mark Bittman. Cranberry salad from My Mother's Southern Kitchen (without the pecans--a rarity for me). (And by "salad" she means "made with lemon jello.")

#3. What’s your favorite Thanksgiving leftover?

Turkey sandwiches with lettuce, mayo on one side, and cranberry sauce on the other. Mmmmm.

#4. Share a recipe using turkey.

I'm all over Smitten Kitchen's recipe for turkey salad here. I had some leftover turkey breast right when that came out and the variation for turkey salad, which I normally don't even like, was terrific. (The original is for chicken salad, but the tarragon and the turkey really work for me.)

Want to join the fun? Go to the FFOF page and check it out!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

You Never Know...

I don't think anyone has me on an RSS feed (not that I know what that is) but it just occurred to me that if they do, I probably flooded them yesterday. No, I wasn't trying to cheat on NaBloPoMo (though I am feeling the pressure!) but it was the first time in a while I got to poke around my blog dashboard and realized there were a ton of posts in there that I thought were posted ages ago but were still sitting in the "draft" folder for no apparent reason. Some I deleted (lots were either no longer relevant or went nowhere--I know--that never seemed to stop me before!) but others should have always been there, tucked in at the point in time where they should have been.

And, in the giveaway column...don't miss the fabu Oprah giveaway, today only. Snapfish is giving a free 8x11 book, inspired by the clutter busting guru Peter Walsh. Wow, I wish he'd show up at my house (next week). His great idea for storing artwork is to take pictures of the pieces, send to Snapfish, and make a book of them so you can throw out the originals. I like the idea though I would miss the texture of some. On the other hand, lots of the collage-y things they make dry out and fall apart anyway. But for free? I'm totally willing to try it and see how it goes.

I will have to sort through my current solution, which is pretty easy--we have big flat storage boxes (like these but flatter) that we put things in after they have been in the "gallery." We have a thing from Ikea that's like a clothesline for hanging art, so we can display stuff first. Which helps with the fridge, though by no means solves it.

Meanwhile, you know that house on Oprah's clutter cleanup tour? Yeah, that looks like my house right now. I simultaneously pray for and fear a visit from that crew! I'm glad to hear him say that it's common because I feel like I am the worst housekeeper I know. And does it reflect my life? Um...probably. How does he do all that in five minutes?!

Finally, thanks for the comments on my friendship posts, and for understanding my point instead of getting huffy ("well, I *thought* we were friends!"). The real point is that I love you all and don't have enough time to spend with you, whereever you are on my friendship chain--new, old, or renewed. I'm working on more time with women in my life in this house full of testosterone. Thanks for being an ear to my frustration!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

WFMW--alternatives to Christmas cards

I have a confession to make, though it will be no surprise to a regular reader.. I am terrible at getting my Christmas cards done. I watch in awe as 150 of my friends and family are able to pull this off year after year while I struggle mightily to make it happen. Maybe it feels too much like the stuff-a-thons at work. Maybe it's too much for a perfectionist to get right. Maybe I'm just lazy (ding ding ding! we have a winner, folks!). But I struggle every year to do it.

This year, I got smarter, though. After years of ordering an 80/20 split of cards between Christmas and holiday greetings (we have a large contingent of a variety of non-Christian friends, most of whom would be patient with Christmas greetings, but perfectionist me hates the idea of offending anyone who is too kind to tell me that they are offended by my card), I ordered a photo card, with a winter themed background, and ordered New Year's cards. Later I learned my friend Shelley does the same thing (via her blog post). I already had tucked away her idea of sending Valentines instead of Christmas cards, as some years, if I start by Halloween, I might actually get something done by February 14. But this is almost better...with a cultural learning component to boot!) And, of course, Shannon's giveaway this week had some great links to New Year's cards as well so it must be catching on.

On the other end of the scale, our friend Beth, who one year knew she had a horrendously busy November and December coming, popped her boys in their Halloween costumes, and wrote her "holiday letter" then. Let's face it, who doesn't like getting a long chatty letter from a friend? So what if it's October and not December? And, one more reason to love Beth, she reminded anyone who thought she was "rushing the season" that she was really 10 months late since she hadn't sent cards at all the year before. (Sort of like my "Christmas in April" pictures last year, when, after three appointments in a row were blown off by my husband I gave up...then coming across the matching sweaters they never wore because I'd wanted to keep them clean for the photos, I threw the boys and the sweaters in to the car and went right to the mall for a photo shoot...which ended up being one of the best ever.)

And finally, I find myself delighted by friends who send e-cards instead of paper ones. No muss, no fuss, some lovely distraction, and still the warm wishes and happy thoughts of someone I love. I don't know that I'll go this route for my whole list, but it might be better than nothing...which is often what happens instead.

So, that's what's working for me as I think about getting ready for the holidays. What's working for you? Post it here at Rocks in my Dryer. Thanks, Shannon!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blog Tours, Part 1

You know it's the holidays when everyone starts talking about money.

Bossy is hosting a Poverty Party on her blog, where she shares all about her family's current debt and encourages readers to do the same. I'm not quite there yet but have been fascinated to read the comments and click on some of the links to see what others are up to.

The Domestic Goddess is joining her, at least for the day. DG usually writes on other things, but all are close to home.

Anjali at SheStartedIt (great blog name, yes?) had the same thoughts this weekend when she opened her credit card bills and saw they were actually lower.

All three women live or lived in my neighborhood. I feel fortunate to have met them in real life and even more so to continue to know them on their blogs.

A continuing theme in my adult life is my frustration with making friends. I enjoy the company of women but since hitting adulthood have sometimes felt as though it is hard to make or maintain friendships. There were several women whose company I enjoyed at my first admissions job, and I still think fondly of them, but almost none are people I'm still in touch with. After I moved away to my second job, I felt pretty sophisticated at age 25, thinking that I understood now about work friendships versus "real" friendships, reflecting on the lack of continued contact with people I'd really enjoyed and who had reached out to me in a variety of ways--a very kind group phone call cheering me on at the end of my first day at the new place; offering to host me when I traveled in their town--but then contact faded.

But staying in one place for 11 years blended it for me and changed my mind again, at least a little. While I was wary of making friends in that office based on some ugly, overly personal scenes (roommates tattling on each other to the boss about who did what instead of working, for one egregious example) and worked hard to be friendly but keep things light, eventually I realized that lots of these people were fun, around my age, and doing cool stuff. So I started hanging out with them, going to Big Head Todd and the Monsters concerts (remember them?!) or football games together. And when some of them started moving on to other jobs, I stayed in their rolodexes and email lists.

Many of them moved on when they started their families. Eventually I started mine as well, and as I transitioned to staying at home, all around me, I saw groups of moms who appeared to be friends, people who could pop in on each other, hand off their stinky babies while gathering supplies, all the things I thought would be the currency of new parenthood. And I started looking for women who could be that circle for me.

And I did find them--I've met some great women everywhere from the library to the playground to the mom-groups to the support organizations I've joined. They've brought me meals and vice versa in good times and in crisis. We've watched each other's kids and traded toys and clothes. But I rarely felt like a soulmate with these women.

At one point, pouring my heart out to my oldest best friend about this, she reminded me that what is needed most to create friendships is time. And at this point of our lives, while having babies and maintaining careers, choosing schools for kids sending us in different directions, time is a luxury few of us enjoy. We can snatch it here and there but it is hard to be able to put in the time. And at the same time, a friend in her 50s reminded me that we would someday have more time--kids in school and more independent activities, careers at a more predictable point--and we'd be able to look back on these times and realize what we'd built.

That's a lifeline of sorts for me. I don't want to rush through these years but hope that there is a point where I can look back and see that the snippets of chatter on the sidelines of the soccer field, or edge of the pool, or aisle of the supermarket, have led to mutual memories.

And in the meantime, I've grown to rely on Facebook and blogs in a way I never expected to. I was lucky enough to go to a college that was one of the first to be on the budding internet. (How old am I? I'm so old, two of my friends' emails were Steve@place and Scott@place. No, really. Pre-.edu and everything.) But you know what? I didn't get it. One of those friends was trying to explain the idea of email to me and I remember wrinkling my face, trying to understand the attraction. "Why wouldn't you just pick up the phone?" I asked. My true geek friends were lost on how to explain it if the appeal wasn't immediately obvious. In my own defense, these were the days just before the Macintosh, when personal computers were still less than terrifically helpful for people without a love of or need for programming.

But now, when my best chances for socializing are when the boys are in bed for either naps or overnight, it's hard to just hop on the phone at a decent hour. And the computer is a lifeline.

So one of the things I'll be doing this month is giving a mini-tour of my blog links. Several of you (my 10 readers) have asked what my connections are with one or another. So I'll be grouping them in a few posts by way of introduction, expanding my bloggy circle. And as a way to say thanks for letting me in to your lives.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seeking Balance

Today was a rare day with the boys with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Swim lessons were cancelled, they were playing together happily and TV free, so we started baking, together and not, and then I was out of vanilla and the wheat germ smelled rancid (though I don't use enough wheat germ to know whether it smells any different when fresh), so I said, "Hey, wanna walk to town?"

"Sure!" the older one replied. "But can I ride my bike?" Why not? So out came his bike and his brother's big wheel and I prepared to stroll. Mistake. They are both quick quick quick on bikes now, which leads me to a bit of a quandary. Stay with me through the background.

Our town has started a "First Friday" program, which is great. While I pine for the First Fridays of yore, when my husband and I would pop down to Olde City to see the art galleries and take in art that ranged from excellent to either not-very-good or we-didn't-get-it, with some cheap wine in plastic cups and some sweaty cheese that had been plated too long leaving us wondering if it was part of an exhibit. This isn't that kind of thing, though there are lots of amateur artists, mostly musicians, and some fun little events happening at the various stores and businesses in our little town. Last week, we went to the new creative space that opened recently, where the boys take their Spanish singing class and their let's-not-call-it-dance-class-so-boys-will-come class, and which is now one of their favorite spaces on the planet. (And thanks to something...Sid the Science Kid? Sesame Street? Google Earth? that's now their question of the week: "Mommy? Are we on a part of the world?" often followed by "is it the part where the sun is shining?") They had a "bedtime story," pajamas optional, with a local artist who was reading and selling the books she had illustrated. (Daughter of Bossy was there too and I am hiring her pronto to be a Mother's Helper after seeing her with the little ones.) After that, we wandered in and out of some of the other shops, listening to the music, seeing the specials, finding friends and neighbors all over.

One of the first places the boys wanted to go was a bike shop, which was fine by me, as one of the bikes needs a bell. Little guy immediately sat down and started swinging the pedals around, watching the chain on the gears, completely engaged, as he always is by bike pedals. Fortunately, the owner was amenable to this and steered him to a bike "chaser" where he could backpedal to his heart's content. She kindly offered to show him how to take apart and reassemble a bike some slow afternoon in her shop, which would thrill him (and his father, who is quite an avid biker).

I was more interested in the bike stand that the adult part of the bike was attached to. It was one of those that is not only a stand, but also turns a road bike in to a stationary bike for indoor exercise. I'm interested in one for lots of reasons; it would be nice to have some equipment here as I'm too lazy to go to the gym, for instance (though I would exercise more in front of a tv, and there are none where I might have space for that); but also as practice for being on my bike without fear of injury.

Several years ago, I had a cold that ended with a nasty bout of vertigo that left me still for days out of fear of the spins. Later that spring, I started having numbness on my left side. An MRI led to the discovery of a brain lesion of undetermined origin, but it's likely it was just a nasty parting gift from the cold. Sometimes viruses just attack the brain--or in my case, the myelin sheaths--and no one knows why. I was fortunate--am fortunate--to have an amazing neurologist and great health care plan to cover the MRIs that were needed to get there.

The numbness is gone. The dizziness (thank God) is gone. But the lasting effect, still, is a lack of balance. It's not too bad, except in some specific circumstances. I went canoeing with the kids twice this summer; both times were nightmares, not because of the boys' behavior (though it was excruciating to be in front of the canoe and not be able to see what they were doing to rock the boat) but due to my own skewed sense of balance.

And the other place it's a problem is on a bike. This has been hard on my husband, who I know pines to take rides with me. I have missed it too as I used to be able to bike to town or the train quite easily. Now it feels like the handlebars and the front wheel aren't really connected, and that the ground beneath me is rocking. I know it isn't, but that doesn't stop it from feeling that way. It's unpleasant at best, scary at worst, and a stumbling block with my boys, who are learning to ride, and want to know why I can't.

I told a shortened version of that story to the woman at the bike shop, and explained that I was hoping that some stationary time on my bike would help my brain remember what it's like to really ride. She looked at me seriously and said, "If you can walk, you can ride." She said if my balance was good enough for walking, that I could ride too and just needed to get used to it again, and the only way to do that was to get out there. Happy as she would have been to make the sale, she didn't think it would help.

Her words brought me back to the time right after the vertigo. I did feel like I was learning to walk again. It was hard to get my feet under me. But I did it. I needed to. I had a pretty heavy walking lifestyle at that time (well, by US standards, anyway) and I had to get my feet back under me. Besides, I felt better about the consequences if I had another attack while walking rather than driving.

It's been a wet weekend here, with lots of slippery leaves, so I've had a weekend to think about what she said with all chances of actually getting on a bike removed. The parallels to other parts of my life are pretty obvious. My husband and I have rather different levels of need of social lives, and we tend to overcorrect and swing wildly from weekends with nothing but chores in the same house but not together, to weekends with way too many social events crammed in. I tend to attract feast-or-famine worklife situations, with periods of downtime followed by completely frantic activity. (Which is balance of a different sort, in some ways--at least it's not all frantic activity all the time.) I want to be with my kids all the time, until I am with them all the time, at which point I start trying to find sitters for them.

After my brain lesion, I was really disappointed in yoga class. Before the lesion, while I was clearly one of the least flexible students in class, the balance exercises were very easy for me. I felt rooted and calm and could hold the poses indefinitely, which was comforting after watching other students' Eagles or other poses look very different from mine. But after, I was one of the ones wobbling with my foot on my knee, unable to achieve the balance needed to feel rooted.

Giving birth twice did that to me in other ways. My whole adult life changed. What I valued, who I thought I was, what I thought I was capable of--all were challenged, and many were changed. And just as I got used to feeling wobbly in yoga class, I got used to feeling wobbly within myself as well.

But if I can walk, I can ride. Unbelievably, I'm right back to Dr. Seligman's class, and learned helplessness. It's depressing, literally, to keep trying things and failing. And there were lots of things I just accepted as part of my post-lesion or post-childbirth life. I tried a few times and gave up, thinking that in the scheme of things you can lose after a brain issue, canoeing and biking and sun salutations were small sacrifices. But what if I'm back to a point where I can do them, with practice?

We had a big weekend around here of readjusting the house for our growing kids. We removed some of the gates on the stairs. We took the safety covers off most of the doorknobs. We moved the older boy back in to a big boy bed (and this time he was thrilled). All of these really were temporary adjustments, as it turned out, though they felt eternal in the moment. Maybe it's time to see if some of these other adjustments are too.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

MPM--Last Week of Work Edition

So sad my last week of work happens this week. I loved this job, as temporary as I knew it would be. But it goes out with a bang with three days of work so I need to be way prepped.

We had a fun week last week, with similar amounts of work and less preparation than this week so hoping all goes better. We had a lot going on, including everything from a public transit adventure for me (3+ hours to get home! A hero from my former office who rescued me by driving me the rest of the way!) to the dog's birthday (really her adoption day of course--we've had her for 6 years! Yay dog!) to an amazing knight-themed birthday party for the older son (jousting with pool noodles!) to a public "bedtime story" at the place the boys take their dance and Spanish singing classes. It was hectic but it was easy to feel connected to the town this week. Now they are settled in watching Schoolhouse Rock, which they just discovered, and I'm done shopping for the week and ready to get going.

Monday: Taco night. Give the boy a thrill. (and with real beef! ooooh! splurge.) Also using black beans and rice to help in my own efforts to eat less meat.

Tuesday: Slow cooker Autumn Pork Roast. Baked sweet potatoes. Salad.

Wednesday: Chicken burgers (Tandoori style) on pitas. Salad. Beets.

Thursday: Leftovers.

Friday: Noodles, or out. Sadly, our high school is out of the playoffs. (Ok, only semi-sadly as that really increases the availability of babysitters.) But two cousins are in a school that is still in playoffs, and one is in the band and one is (nominally) on the team. (He's jv, but gets to suit up.) So we might go see them play, if it's not too cold, or there's the temporarily shelved pizza tradition.

I rediscovered sweet Italian sausage this weekend. That sauce went fast. Might do that again in a new permutation. We'll see.

Have a great week everyone.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Could I Forget? FFoF

Wow, I know I was tired on a Friday when casting for a meme and I forgot Four Foods on Friday! Friday is even in the name of the meme. Sheesh.

Without further ado, this week's questions and answers. I like the red, white, and blue theme!

#1. Name a food you like that uses a red sauce or anything red in it.

The reddest thing we eat are tomatoes. Since an unfortunate Hawaiian Punch incident I try to keep the red food coloring to a minimum in this house. But gravy? (What Italians in my area call tomato sauce, not the brown stuff.) All the time. I can't find a canned or jarred one I like, and I'm no expert in making my own, alas. So we buy what's on sale and throw in more garlic, red wine if some is open (or about to be), and Italian seasonings and call it a sauce. I'm experimenting with cinnamon in there too, though that is a clear white flag that I am no longer even attempting to re-create the sauces of my childhood.

#2. Name a food you like with whipped cream in it or on it.

I am not a whipped cream girl, though I have happy memories of it on long bus rides with the band in college. And otherwise, I adore the Icebox Cake my (not-Italian) great-aunt used to make. This is Smitten Kitchen's version, but my aunt just laid them side by side and they were still awesome.

#3. Name a food you like with blueberry in it.

Again, not my favorite (though I am a fan); but my husband's all time favorite dessert is blueberry buckle, and just this morning I had an awesome cookie with blueberry jam in the middle:

2 cups oatmeal
2 sticks butter
1 c brown sugar
1 ¾ c flour
A little salt
1 tsp?? baking soda
Chopped nuts

Pre-heat oven to 400. Mix till blended. Grease 9x13 pan. Reserve about 2 cups of mixture, pat rest into greased pan. Spread your favorite jam over bottom (I used a 9oz?? jar of raspberry preserves?? I’ll double check…I’ve made ½ one flavor and ½ another flavor) I’ll double check recipe, but I always use more jam than they call for. Bake 25-30 minutes. Recipe called for 1 c firmly packed brown sugar, but I didn’t use that much.

That other half was blueberry and it was delicious in its unexpectedness.

#4. Share a recipe for pasta or dessert or a beverage.

I just did. Enjoy. And I bet if you are a whipped cream person it would be yummy on the above cookie! And it was nice for a 10am farewell as well.

Check out what other people are doing (and don't miss The Best Babysitter Ever's recipe either!) here. And have a good week!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Christmas Prep Updates

Ah, memes, how I love you. Especially on Fridays when I am too tired to think of my own freakin' topic and is it December yet? I was afraid not.

With, um, hello, 48 days to Christmas, the emails in the family are starting to fly. "I thought the limit was $50." "I thought it was $150 per family and $25 per kid." (Which is so so so much more than I make in a month right now if you extend it to the whole family I'm hoping for the combo $50 per family and $25 per kid.) "Are we giving to charity?" (I hope so.)

And in the middle of it, Halloween, Thanksgiving tussles, and the whirl of finishing one job and desperate attempts to start the next.

So, this week, thanks to the 100 Days countdown, I did achieve some results. We cleared Halloween and in the post-holiday Target sale I got a clear storage bin with an orange lid for the attic so next year, I will be able to find all the fabric-based decorations that I couldn't find this year. (And, note to self, no one missed but me. Just sayin'.) We pulled down Halloween bit by bit, to the boys' dismay. and got that away for a breather before my (small and staying that way) turkey collection makes its appearance. The Phillies paraphenalia isn't gone yet but I'm in no rush. Still giddy over that, too.

Other "posts into action" this week:

I saw the cranberry sauce sale and hopped on it. It was 5 for $2 (!!!) and so two for me, three to give away, and that's done. I grew up loving the jelly one that came out in the shape of the can (didn't everyone?) but have been converted to the whole-berry stuff. But I split the three leaning to the jelly, since if a family has any kids, that's what they'll want. I'll be picking up more things as time goes on but that was a start.

I have started on my ultimate grocery list for Thanksgiving, and had my practice one going strong. I even found cheap brussels sprouts (though to be honest, I buy them so infrequently, I don't know what a good price is, but this one seemed totally reasonable) at the Farmers' Market where I work and so I am ready to practice on them. I know I ate them when I was little but just got out of the habit. I'll be interested to see what happens next.

We did remember to turn back our clocks. And I totally voted. We felt very lucky; it was so easy. We read that in the last presidential election, 90% of votes in our town were cast before 6pm, so we took the chance that the trend would hold. And hold it did. We picked up my husband from work, drove straight to the polls, walked right in, got in "the blue tents" (as my son called the voting booths) right away, said a little prayer, and made history.

Looking for help getting coordinated for the holidays? Try here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

News You Can Use (and so can they)

For those of you who remember Philly Expatriate's very funny troll for people who are looking for naughty things on Google, there's a new twist to the phenomenon.

Several years ago, my husband and I were in an excruciating long line (pre-9/11) that was moving so slowly we were worried about missing our flight, even though we'd arrived over three hours early. We were getting closer to the front of the line when from somewhere in the snakeline we heard a man raise his voice. "If I miss my flight," he intoned, clearly trying to reach the whole terminal, "I am going to put up an anti-USAir website!"

Even pre-9/11, flying was a little tense, and it was hard to stifle the snickers. This was SO early in the internet era, I'm not sure more than half the people in line even had access to the web. (We were flying to Seattle for a wedding, so maybe we were wrong. But at the time, the internet was still dominated by academe and silliness.) "Ooooh, an anti-USAir website!" we joked later. "So other nerds won't make the same mistake!"

But a few months ago on my blog I started noticing a little trend. I wrote about loving my wireless keyboard and mouse (which ended up causing way more problems than they were worth, but I didn't know that at the time) on a WFMW post. And next thing I knew, one of my comments included a link to a site that sold the keyboards. I didn't post the comment for a few days, debating how I felt about freebie advertising for a place I had no business dealings with. But I appreciated the ingenuity and posted the comment with a disclaimer.

Shortly after that, I had my cathartic Why I'm A Composting Dropout post, and expressed my frustrations with my Earth Machine composter and my complete inability to get the top half and the bottom half to actually stay together. And within a week, I had a very kind and deferential comment from the Earth Machine people, apologizing for my difficulty and giving me suggestions on how to (literally) get it together.

Turns out, that's just the next wave in internet marketing. Companies troll the web looking for complaints and rants that they can help fix online. Check out the news story on this phenomenon from the local news here.

I'm guessing the manager of my 401K isn't looking to try to make up to me online. But overall, I appreciate the companies who are going out of their way to be responsive to customers, even those who aren't complaining directly.

Anyone else have any luck like this?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WFMW--Toys That Are Worth It


Wow. Wow. Wow.

I'm trying to clear my head to get back to other thoughts other than the momentous shift that just happened here.

Keep in mind, for my house, boys rule. So I can't give you great ideas for little girls, as much as I'd love to think that there are some toys all kids would love.

First, Shannon stole my thunder: the Thomas toys rule, especially the wooden ones. I'm a little sad that they are fading in the house (not least because of the huge financial investment of many family members in it). But if I even suggest replacing the train tracks on the train table with Something Else, even the Something Else they are playing with at that moment, I am met with howls and howls of protest, and secretly I am pleased.

Second, as went the country, so go my boys. After a solid four-year dominance, the trains are slowly, slowly, slowly being replaced by cars. You can't do better for the money than the Hot Wheels or Matchboxes, and my kids are at an age where volume counts. But the remote control cars are really coming on strong here. The humongous hit of birthday season (ages 5 and 3) was the Morphibian "shark" car.

Third, the strong back-benchers for us have been the play kitchen; Geotrax; Chicken Dance Elmo; TJ Bearytales; construction-themed lacing cards; and an assortment of electronic toys I can't recommend in good conscience (the Leapster, and, my more-favored, a "computer" with various learning games based on the "I Like It When" penguins) because they are too loud or too easy to memorize and move on.

Finally, the oldies-but-goodies are still huge here. Anything with balls or wheels (scooter, bikes, trikes, soft sports sets) are huge. And books are always popular and even better when twinned with a stuffed animal that goes with it. (Most recent example: my aunt sent my older son a stuffed roadrunner that coos with the book "Lizards for Lunch" and he adores them.) Books that are huge winners in our house that I don't see listed very often include: When Pigasso Met Mootisse; Wacky Wednesday; Double Trouble in Walla-Walla; Fish Out of Water; and Bird Calls, complete with the soundtrack at the bottom.

Also, as the idea here is a "no junk" theme (and we are firmly in the throes of the "Little Plastic Bits" era here), we are working hard on event presents (lessons, events) to cut down on "stuff" and to stretch the season a bit.

Looking for other good ideas? (I am.) Check out today's WFMW at Rocks in my Dryer.

And one other note: In another stroke of pure genius, on Amazon today, they are advertising "Frustration Free Packaging." They are starting with just 19 toys and other items that come without impossible-to-open plastic packages, or 8,723 twist ties trapping everything in place. Next to stringing the lights, freeing the toys was my husband's least favorite Christmas chore and Amazon has eliminated it, at least for these, with promises of more to come. I'm ready to order the pirate ship on principle to support them in this effort.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

While walking to pick up the little one at preschool, the older one, who is working hard understanding the election, looked up at me and said, "You know what, Mom? Both Obama and McCain are friends of God." Which let me know that I have imparted the most important lessons about this country to him. And he quickly followed up with, "Like Santa. And Santa and God have been friends for a long, long time." Which let me know that Christmas is coming. We just hop around holidays here.

Go Vote

Moxie of Ask Moxie also has a personal blog. On it this morning, she wrote:

Lever

So this morning I'm going to take my two white sons who are going to grow up to be white men, and take them to the voting booth. We will (together) pull the lever for Barack Obama. And then we'll look at a photo of him, and talk about how he's the better candidate, and how the better person should be president. And how his skin is darker than ours is, and he has a foreign name (like I do, but my sons don't), and how we're lucky to live in the United States, where what you do is more important that what you look like or who your parents are.

And I know it's a lie, but maybe if I say it enough times to them, they'll help make it true some day.


Such an interesting phenomenon, the power of suggestion.

In my last job in college admissions, when there were university-wide changes on the way, the dean taught us to talk as though it had already happened. "Don't lie, of course," he'd caution us, so if, for example, the Writers House wasn't open yet but was under construction, we didn't want to describe events as having happened already. But, he would remind us, if we don't talk about people sitting in the living room, listening to famous authors read, or poetry circles thoughtfully critiquing each others' work, it would never happen. People who wanted that to happen needed to hear it to make it happen.

It's sort of like Oprah's "Secret" in a professional context. (Which is one reason I really laughed when I saw that show, because the former dean and Oprah share only a little common ground (charisma, definitely, and influence, but I'm struggling to think of any other overlap). So I'm a big believer in talking about the world as we want it to be because that is the first step to making it happen.

And I have to point you to my new separated-at-birth-or-at-least-graduation blog-friend Emily. Her post today, An Election Day Prayer, captures most of what I pray for too. We have two men who passionately love this country, both strong leaders, both deeply flawed. (And I don't even want to get in to the VP candidates.) I am comfortable with my decision and can't wait to cast my vote. But I understand the angst of those who are choosing the other candidate, their hopes, their fears, and that many of their goals for this country are the same as mine (although some are markedly different, and hence my choices).

I want voting records shattered today. I want peace at the polls. And yes, I want my guy to win, of course, just as everyone who votes today does. But I love election days here in my hometown--my first grade teacher, moms of kids I grew up with, men who've taken the collection at my church since I was a toddler plopping in change--that's who works our polls, with pictures of their grandkids and coos over my kids. They were thrilled when we moved to this side of town so they knew they'd see me twice a year at least. And I am grateful every time that I live here and can say that, and don't have to worry about ink on my fingers or danger to myself or property for going to vote. I am grateful to the women one hundred years ago who fought for me to have this right, and my parents for showing me how important it is by always voting themselves and taking me. And I hope all the new voters today grow to love it like I do.

Happy election day to all. See you on the other side.