Finding Nemo a Car

Having a new driver is probably one of the hardest parenting challenges I’ve had to face. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out why; my readers are pretty smart cookies. Even though I have a responsible, logical, fairly cautious child with good reflexes courtesy of Crazy Taxi and Grand Theft Auto, I still worry.

When I was a new mom back in 1996, I was a world class worrier. Part genetics, part circumstance, I could not help myself. MOMS Club meetings? Please. Why would I willingly bring my kid to a Lord of the Flies Germfest! Old school playgrounds? Hello, are you nuts?  Metal bars + gravity = permanent brain damage. McDonald’s Playlands with fecal encrusted ball pits? Right, thanks, I’ll take fries with that. I was never exactly a helicopter mom; we often didn’t make it to the airport.

By the time 2001 rolled around and I was pregnant with my second son, I had finally mellowed. I was a bit unrecognizable to my former self and would often wonder things like, “How did we ever have any friends?” How I got from Crazy Neurotic Nut to Something Resembling Normal is a long tale for perhaps another day, but let’s just say I got there.

In 2003, Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo came out. As a hater of 99% of all children’s movies, I was surprised and delighted by how much I loved this movie. It should be required viewing for all parents. If you never saw it, I hope you will. If I had seen it sooner, I might have enjoyed my first early years of motherhood a lot more. This movie is therapy and entertainment rolled into one.

I’m not great a plot summaries, but the gist of the movie is an overprotective fish father (Marlin) goes on an adventure to find his lost fish son (Nemo) and meets a cast of interesting characters along the way. He enlists the help of fish Dory, who is footloose and fancy-free. And, of course, they live happily ever after. But the following exchange sums up everything I need to remember about parenting:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

So here I am, in 2013, finally drawing upon my stored up wisdom from Finding Nemo. The ocean is a terrifying place full of peril and danger, but that’s life. As my friend Heidi said, what’s the alternative? Chain him to the bed? All we can do is dive in, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, and try to enjoy the adventure. Safe travels, my little fish.

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Farmers’ Market Pasta with Leeks, Spinach and Summer Squash

Recently Cook’s Country magazine arrived in the mail for the first time, and I think it has potential to be a good one. As a subscriber of the now defunct Cook’s Illustrated Entertaining editions, I am assuming this magazine was sent in its place. Slowly but surely, life is starting to feel normal again. Well, normalish. Normalish enough that I actually opened up the magazine and looked at some recipes instead of filing it away unread. Any progress is good progress, right?

Of course I went to the quick and easy recipes first. I try to do a lot of my cooking and food prep in the morning before work, because I’m not usually home until 7:00 pm — and by then, I’m in no shape to tie my shoes let alone work with fire. A recipe like this is right up my alley: fresh, flavorful, one pot, and with some added protein, it’s a complete meal. It looked way too beige for my liking, so I added some cherry tomatoes. Since I also added a bit of arugula, I skipped the basil in the original recipe, but that might be preferable if you are just using spinach. This is both good served warm and at room temperature, and a nice change from the normal pasta salads we see this time of year.

Farmers’ Market Pasta with Leeks, Spinach and Summer Squash
inspired by Cook’s Country June/July 2013

1 pound penne or similar pasta
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, sliced thin, & washed thoroughly
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 yellow summer squash (about 8 oz each), halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
6 oz (6 cups) baby spinach, chopped coarse
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
2 ounces good Parmesan grated (1 cup), plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Optional: 2 cups grilled chicken, salmon or shrimp
Optional but recommended: a handful of arugula

1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in Dutch oven. Add penne and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve 3/4 cup cooking water, then drain penne.

2. Heat oil in now empty pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add leeks and 1 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add squash and 1/4 cup reserved cooking water and cook, covered, until squash is tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in penne, spinach, Parmesan, tomatoes, remaining 1/2 cup reserved cooking water, and butter until combined. Add cooked chicken, salmon or shrimp, if using. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing extra Parmesan separately.

farmers'marketpasta

Spicy Cabbage with Pancetta and Shrimp

For the first time in what feels like many weeks, I was inspired to cook, and I have my original blogging inspiration to thank. Luisa from The Wednesday Chef posted this recipe, and it immediately grabbed me. It’s been a long while since I had that I-must-try-this-tonight feeling, and it’s good to have it return. I missed you, apron.

Transitions are always hard for me, and even though I’m very blessed to have a great work environment and lots of support on the homefront, I still struggle mightily with change. Eventually I get my bearings and wind up exactly where I belong, but it’s not always an easy journey.

I celebrated my 45th birthday yesterday. I have loved my forties so far and agree with everyone who told me it’s a great decade: lots of wisdom, and no time for nonsense. My only complaint is that the past five years really zoomed by, and at this rate I will be fifty before I know it. Not that that’s so terrible (as they say, better than the alternative), but I am always amazed at how each year goes by quicker than the last once you hit a certain age. Both at my very first job and my current job, I see a lot of fabulous, vibrant people in their seventies and eighties, so I know the party isn’t necessarily over just quite yet.

I was off the last two days and managed to pack in a lot of fun. Caught up on my Real Housewives of Beverly Hills while folding loads of laundry, just like the good old days. Had two long lunches with two different friends. Browsed Target, my former home away from home, at a leisurely pace. And, finally, blogged.

This is a very forgiving recipe which lends itself easily to variations. Sambal Oelek is this stuff, and it’s stocked in all my grocery stores (even the super white bready ones). I used pancetta, but you can omit it or use bacon. I used shrimp, but you can omit it or add another meat, chicken or shellfish. Luisa’s version is slightly different but I am sure equally easy and delicious. Serve with a hearty bread and call it a meal.

Spicy Cabbage with Pancetta and Shrimp

Serves 4

1 head green cabbage, sliced in strips
1 onion, chopped
4 Tablespoons peanut or canola oil
4 oz. pancetta, diced
1 large can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Sambal Oelek or more to taste
10 to 15 large cooked shrimp

In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium high heat and add chopped onion. Once softened, add pancetta and cook until brown. Add cabbage and cook for ten minutes, stirring often. Add tomatoes, salt, and sambal oelek. Cover and lower heat for about ten minutes. Add cooked shrimp or other meat and serve.

cabbage

spatially challenged

The above picture is for my long-suffering Ed, who has dealt with my spatial challenges for over twenty years. Clearly he wasn’t home for me to ask, “Will this all fit in that bowl?” Note: Nine times out of ten, the answer is usually no.

spicy cabbage

Born at the Right Time

Tomorrow my sweet Nate turns twelve, but the celebration begins today.

Back when the kids were very young and the days were long and sometimes difficult, the phrase we and millions of other parents would utter during the arsenic hour is, “This too shall pass.” And it really did pass, even though I was quite sure at the time I would be stuck there forever. Looking back, I see that so many of the issues that consumed my daily life are barely discernible memories today. Today I am recalling the difficult journey that lead up to Nate’s birth.

We wanted our kids to be two to three years apart, and like many couples, we just assumed that when we were ready, we’d simply pick a month and then voila! Positive pregnancy test. That’s how it happened the first time and had every reason to believe that’s how it would be the second time, too. Not so.

Months on the hope and despair roller coaster of infertility turned into years. Test after test revealed no identifiable problems — all parts on both parties were in fine working order. Unexplainable infertility was the diagnosis, and it felt like a fancy way of saying, “Hmm, who the hell knows? That will be another $500, please.” I wished they would find a problem so we could either fix it or move on to acceptance that there would be no second baby.

When my best friend told me with great trepidation that she was pregnant with her daughter, I said all the right things (“congratulations!” “what a blessing!” “how fun to have two so close in age!”), and later cried my eyes out in the privacy of the shower. Then the baby boom started. Friend after friend had her second and sometimes third child while I still waited and waited for our turn. Slowly we started to accept that we might not get another shot, but we were lucky to be parents at all. That’s the thing about secondary infertility — you don’t really feel entitled to cry too hard. It feels whiny and self indulgent, and then you feel bad for feeling bad.

I am in no way negating the pain of secondary infertility millions of women are feeling or have felt; I have cried with you, believe me. But sitting here today, a mother of not two but three, it’s easy to forget the monthly drama that went on in my life for so long. It truly did pass, and it’s just a distant memory now.

Happy Birthday, my dear Nate. Life didn’t turn out the way I planned it (it rarely ever does), but it turned out the way it was supposed to.

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

– Paul Simon, Born at the Right Time

Greetings from the Trenches

Well, hello, strangers! Remember me?  I have started and stopped writing this post at least three times. There is so much I want to say. There is so much I can’t say. There is so much I’ve tried to say but none of it is turning out clearly. I am supposed to be vacuuming right now. Or folding laundry. Or cleaning a bathroom. Take your pick!

My first week of work went pretty much as expected, which is to say it totally kicked my ass. I knew it would be hard, and hard it was. But not in a bad way.

I am fortunate to have a really wonderful work environment filled with people I respect and enjoy. As one of my coworkers said, “It’s just so civil here.” And it really is. That said, it’s hard being the new girl, the bumbling one always asking questions or looking for clarification or just messing up. That’s all part of the process, of course, and my coworkers have been nothing but encouraging and supportive. In terms of work environment, I’m pretty sure I hit the jackpot.

Back on the home front, I have three responsible, independent, capable kids who do their homework willingly and only turn on each other occasionally. I have a a supportive spouse who is an equal partner and didn’t have to suddenly “learn” any of my mom duties for the first time last week. I have the freedom of knowing that if things get really hard, if the kids are suffering, if I am unhappy or if I simply change my mind, I can always walk away. Not that I’d ever want to, but I can. Knowing that I have support and options puts me in a very fortunate position, and it’s not one I will ever take for granted. Any way you slice it, I am a lucky, lucky lady. And it is still damn, damn hard, this juggling act.

I was hoping to get back into the kitchen to concoct something new and exciting to share, but I’m just not at that point yet. I am sticking to all of the familiar favorites and nothing worth posting yet. I am hopeful that I will find my groove in a few more weeks and carve out some time to write and cook, but for now my goals are meager: clean underwear, food, baseball, sleep. Eventually I will conquer more. Probably.

 

A Few Days in Palm Beach

My rarely spontaneous but always wonderful husband decided to book an impromptu little getaway for us last week to Palm Beach in honor of our April and May birthdays and twenty year anniversary (which is still many months away — we like to get this party started early). We were so lucky/grateful my mom was able to come up and watch the kids. Getting away as a couple has been very important and worthwhile for us, but I’ll admit I dragged my feet about ever leaving them until 2010. The kids were in good hands, and we were both able to take a nice little break from Real Life for a few days.

I am normally not a big Florida fan, but Palm Beach helped to convert me. And the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa (formerly the Ritz Carlton) sealed the deal. We were very fortunate to be upgraded to an ocean front suite, and when I opened to door to see this view, I gasped:

Palm Beach View

It was unseasonably chilly in Philadelphia when we arrived at this beautiful sight. I feel serene just looking at the picture.

Reading is an essential part of any vacation for me. When I wasn’t eating, drinking or napping, I was reading by the pool or beach or balcony. I am currently working on Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroudt. (Note: also just downloaded David Sedaris’s newest novel last night, and I’ve been laughing my head off, much to the annoyance of my family. I will finish that before the other two).

I am not a trendy person at all, except when it comes to nail polish. Yellow is the hot color of spring/summer 2013, so I got right aboard that train — despite all the jokes from Ed. I think sometimes people in the, ahem, older generation have trouble accepting anything beyond the traditional pink/purple/orange/nude palate for nails. Even though I’m a bit of a nail polish snob, sometimes I slum it with Sally Hansen, which is what’s on my toes below, along with Eliza B flip flops. The formula of the polish is really clumpy, streaky and terrible (further fueling my future rationalization of pricy nail polish), but the color is lemony and cheery. And very Palm Beach, wouldn’t you say?

Years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing this lovely lady during my time in London, and through the magic of Facebook, she has always been generous about dispensing fashion and dining advice for many of my trips over the years. Based on her recommendations, we booked reservations at Buccan and Chez Jean Pierre, and they were both very good suggestions.

Buccan has a wonderful vibe, and despite not being of the Beautiful People set, we were treated very well. We met some friends last minute for cocktails at the Ritz and then dinner at Chez Jean Pierre and enjoyed a very respectable French meal (although in retrospect Buccan might have been the better spot to go with friends). It’s always the quirky, weird things I seem to remember over the years, and I can guarantee that this piece of artwork hanging over my head at Chez Jean Pierre will not soon be forgotten:

baby leg

In case it’s not obvious, that’s a baby leg and a black high heel shoe mounted on the wall. Perhaps after a few more cocktails I could have made sense of it, but instead I just wrote it off to the quirky charm of the French.

It is finally warm and feeling like spring, and I’m enjoying my last weekday of being a lady of leisure by reading, blogging, and watching some Bravo while folding a lot of laundry. I feel rested and restored and ready to return to the workforce on Monday.

Farewell to SAHMhood

On Monday, I will begin a new chapter of my life. Like all new chapters of really good books, I feel a little bit of sadness that the last chapter has ended and a lot of excitement about learning what comes next and how the story will continue to unfold.

After over seventeen years of staying home with the kids, I will be going back to work full-time. While I have dabbled in this and that part-time throughout the years, as well as helped manage our investment properties, I haven’t worked an eight hour day in a very long time. But what have I done?

I have changed a lot of diapers and nursed three babies and attended MOMS Club outings and play groups and swimming lessons and Kindermusik and Gymboree classes. I have treated preschool admissions like Harvard and parent-teacher conferences and well-visit annual checkups like an audience with the Pope. I have been Homeroom Mom and Staff Appreciation Volunteer and Halloween Party Helper. I have been covered in hot glue and glitter and stickers and Sharpie ink and addressed so many Valentines to girls named Caitlin and Kaitlin and Katelyn. I have been to countless field days and school plays and science fairs and chorus concerts and talent shows. I have been soccer mom and lacrosse mom and karate mom and tennis mom and basketball mom and baseball mom. I have driven many miles, mostly in a minivan.

I have dealt with various medical crises, some big and scary, but most blessedly just a nuisance. I have found the best pediatric specialists, whether for ophthalmology or otolaryngology or dental or educational testing or minor surgery. I have fought with several insurance companies, and I have usually won.

I have volunteered as an adult reading tutor and taught English grammar to immigrants wanting to speak better. I have volunteered at the local food pantry and animal shelter. I have happily cooked meals for women’s shelters and new moms and needy families and friends who just needed help.

I don’t regret a single minute of it, but it is finally time for me to move on from the world of stay-at-home-motherhood. I honestly never expected to be here for so long, but that’s what happens sometimes when your children are spaced out so widely. I will still be a mom, of course; that’s a forever job. But I will no longer be that mom.

Years ago, when I thought I knew everything, I was sure staying home and raising children full-time was the only right choice. On behalf of my former self, I apologize. There really is more than one right way to do this thing. I have seen friends and family members with impressive, demanding jobs raise amazing, well adjusted, nice kids who love their working moms every bit as much as my children love me. The answer is there is no answer. We’re all just trying our best.

Like all mothers everywhere, I would happily take a bullet for any of my children, but I no longer feel it’s in our best interest to make them my entire life. It’s time I find another identity besides wife and mother. Wife and mother will always remain my two most valued and important identities, but I am a working dog at heart. I crave a set schedule and a To Do list, and I’m happiest when I’m accomplishing something tangible.

The last couple of years have left me with too much free time, and I’ve not always used it constructively. As much as it sounds luxurious to do whatever you want, whenever you want, I can personally assure you that for my personality type, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. My mother-in-law has a caligraphied saying which reads, “Only through discipline may a man be born free,” and over the years I’ve come to understand that. I need the discipline and feeling of accomplishment that a job outside the home can bring.

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to start this blog. It has brought me so much joy and satisfaction to document parts of our life (and some of our better meals), and I have no plans of letting it go. I may post more, I may post less. Okay, likely less. I still hope to cook real food, although I can guarantee that won’t be happening much until I get my sea legs.

I hope you’ll stick with me as I start this new chapter. As always, thanks for reading.

Happy Things for a Rainy Friday

Happy Friday, friends! Here are a few things which are cheering me up today:

1. The Garden Fence. Our house is on one acre, but the adjacent property has over twenty acres, mostly wooded. I like to call it Deer Gardens, an executive community for deer demanding only the finest organic produce, fresh spring water, and award winning schools. Last spring Ed constructed a new fence, so the deer are forced to eat my tulips instead of my vegetables. Pictured below are the very beginning sprouts of radishes (plus weeds which instantly sprung up in the rain).

DeerGardens

2. National Grilled Cheese Day. At first I thought this was like all of the other fake Facebook-inspired holidays made up by some bored fourteen year old, but then I thought, “Who even cares? This is a day I am planning to celebrate!” Turns out it’s a real thing.

Grilled cheese is one of my first favorite foods. I remember being around age four and asking my dad if he is allowed to eat “girl cheese” since he’s a boy. I probably remember this because my family made me ask him this again every single time I ate a girl cheese for the next year. I might have thought they were stupid back then, but now I get it.

I plan on making today’s grilled cheese with grated Gruyère and sharp cheddar, heavy on the butter. Why can’t I lose weight?

GirlCheese

3. Nail Polish. I have a bit of a thing for nail polish. As a child, I always enjoyed the thrill of a new box of crayons, and I love choosing colors. No surprise, I am like a moth to flame at any nail polish display and often find myself powerless. I suppose there are worse shopping addictions one can have. It’s almost time to pick a new color, which is half the fun for me.

While I’m happy with most Essie and OPI shades, my real weakness is Dior. I am currently wearing OPI’s Bubble Bath in a gel — a decent nude but nothing too exciting. I definitely prefer my Dior Safari Beige. That’s me in a nutshell: Fifty Shades of Beige.

4. My Mad Men lamp. This lovely relic currently resides in my basement in a room whose decor can best be described as Garage Sale/Bennigan’s Transitional. When my mother-in-law went into assisted living, we snatched this baby right up. I truly do love it, but it doesn’t quite work on my main floor. I am hoping to find a better spot to showcase all of its Don Draperesque awesomeness. Sorry, folks, it’s not for sale.

mad men lamp

Wishing you all a beautiful weekend filled with good food and happy things.

The Joy of Going Dark

Watching the season six premiere of Mad Men Sunday night reminded me once again of a simpler time. However, witnessing the lack of constant communication and inability to Google anything on the spot always unsettles me; it feels like reverse science fiction. Did I once really live like this? When Betty went into The Dicey Neighborhood without a cell phone, I was very nervous indeed. How did we manage back then? Almost unbelievable.

It’s an interesting experience to be an American woman in her forties. I’m young enough to have adapted and embraced most new technology with ease, but I’m still old enough to remember having a real life before smart phones and GPS. I remember going out on dates, to parties and various day trips with friends and I rarely could call home to say I arrived safely; I just needed to return when I said I would. What a leap of faith! I remember going to New York City, Paris and London, meeting people at various pre-arranged spots, and if they were late or their train was delayed or they got a little lost…I just kept waiting. Eventually everyone always showed up. Finding someone in a big city without a cell phone seems like a true miracle today.

When I’m working, I don’t have my cell phone with me on the sales floor. It’s against policy and everyone knows I’m usually an obedient rule follower. For many hours at a time, I have no access to my phone, texts, emails, etc. And I kind of like it. For that time period, I am focused fully on being where I am and not distracted by the constant pings of notifications of my Other Life. The world, so used to my usual quick reply, needs to patiently wait until I am done working.

The world is not accustomed to patiently waiting for me. Once, while working a mere four hour shift, I found a voice mail, then a text seeing if I ever got the voice mail, and then another text to follow up…all from the same person in less than four hours. And this was not a 911 emergency, either.  People expect me to be a rapid responder and tend to panic a bit when I’m not. What would Betty say? Probably something delightfully bitchy.

I have learned to embrace my periods of digital incommunicado. They feel like mini vacations back to my youth, a life where I can go almost eight hours without knowing about baseball schedule changes and 40% off Banana Republic coupons and spring fair volunteer sign ups and the latest celebrity gossip and my son’s physics grade. Sooner or later, I find out about all of this stuff. For now, on brief occasions, I am enjoying the charmingly retro concept of Just Being Where I Am. I do believe it will be the next big thing.

Another 8766 Hours, Another Birthday Cake

Years ago, my old book club read Michael Cunningham’s brilliant Pulitzer prize winning novel The Hours. I absolutely loved this book, but I can still hear my fellow book club members groaning from here. Let’s just say everyone did not share my enthusiasm for The Hours. In their defense, it was rather depressing. I lent out my copy, so I can’t refer back to specific passages. But one in particular really spoke to me.

Laura Brown was an unsatisfied, depressed housewife in 1949 suburban Los Angeles. Like me at the time, she attached a little too much significance into baking (creating) her husband’s birthday cake. It was her job, her art, her lot in life. And no surprise, despite her ardent efforts, it came out imperfectly.

While thankfully I was never anywhere near the level of misery of Laura Brown (who winds up leaving her family), there was a lot of me who could relate to her struggles during that time of my life. Back in those days, a cake was one of the few pieces of evidence that I “did something.” And then the reminder that I once had so many more dreams for myself than just baking cakes.

She, Laura, likes to imagine (it’s one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren’t all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. — Michael Cunningham, The Hours

I am better now that my kids are older and I have crafted more of a balanced life for myself, but for every birthday cake I bake, I still remember that gray period of my life when the cake was such a powerful symbol. It represented my job, my worth, my abilities. While there are many times when I still mourn for my life with small children (usually when I see a cute one in the grocery store), I remember that it was also a difficult and sometimes dark time filled with much loneliness, isolation and boredom. Women don’t talk about that part, but they should. Despite my fierce love for my family, I was a little lost and unfulfilled as a person during my early years of motherhood.

It feels taboo to admit that. It feels whiny and self indulgent, and maybe it is. But I serve no one by pretending it was easy, happy and perfect. It wasn’t. Not for me, anyway. There were wonderful hours, for sure, but back then, the wonderful hours were much fewer and farther between than today. I don’t know that I would ever want to go back to that place.

This year’s birthday cake for my husband feels like a victory. Not because it will be perfect, but because it won’t be. It will just be a cake, and there is no such thing as bad cake. It will be sweet and a little messy but satisfying and made with love and good intentions, just like a cake and a life should be.