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Let There Be Lemons

This happened today.

Lemons

The annual juicing of the lemon tree. We have two lemon trees in our yard. Seriously, who plants two lemon trees right next to each other? One tree yields more than enough lemons. Every year Scott and the kiddos harvest the fruit and then save off the juice in ice cube trays. Once the trays are frozen, Scott loads the cubes into Ziploc bags for year-round use and summertime lemonade stands. Maybe one of these years we will branch out and try homemade limoncello, or marmalade, or lemon curd.

The Grand Canyon. It really is grand. It is so grand, I think the font on the maps and signs leading up to the park should shout, GRAND CANYON!! SERIOUSLY!! GRAND DOESN’T EVEN BEGIN TO DESCRIBE WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE!! This could be one of those very rare occasions where gratuitous exclamation points would be warranted. Once we arrived, we took at least 40 minutes to decide how best to approach the grandness of the park in the mere 10 hours we scheduled for our visit, though I could have easily sat in a lawn chair at Mather Point and watched and listened to people’s expressions as they approached the canyon for the first time. On our way home, I stumbled across a copy of  The Emerald Mile at a small Portlandia-style bookstore in Flagstaff. The author’s poetic description of a vertical mile of stratum descending to the river floor almost moved me to tears. Yes, I came close to crying over a written description of rocks. Both the canyon and the book have inspired me to dust off my backpack and plan a back country trip so I can feel in person, how insignificant my world is in comparison to the epochs and ocean floors stacked above me.

Grand Canyon

Winter Plagues

We’ve been battling the plagues at our house. Santa brought us lice on Christmas Eve, January delivered gum surgery and the stomach flu, and Valentine’s Day brought us lice, rats and incontinent cats. I’ve never been that fond of Valentine’s Day but the holiday hit a new low when, after picking through my child’s head for nits, I found myself face to face with a huge rat while cleaning up my cat’s urine.

I’ve spent the past couple months deciding whether or not to speak openly about my kids getting lice. After our first lice outbreak on Christmas Eve, I was pretty adamant about not mentioning it on Facebook lest our friends deem our kids and house dirty and decide to reassess whether or not to let their kids play with ours. I felt ashamed, like I hadn’t done a good enough job keeping my kids clean even though I know and all the literature says that lice has nothing to do with poor hygiene and social status.

When the second outbreak hit, something inside of me broke—in a good way. I stopped caring about what people may think about my kids or my home—or more appropriately, I stopped projecting my insecurities about lice onto others. I still neurotically scrubbed the crap out of my house for six hours straight, spent a back breaking three hours hunched over my daughter’s head and created roughly 40 loads of laundry in one week from all of the sheet stripping, jacket cleaning and towel and clothing isolation. I spent another series of back breaking hours checking my kids’ heads for lice again, and again, and again. Gah, my head itches just writing about it.

I was pretty uptight and meticulous about not sharing hats and brushes when I was a kid. I would have been mortified if I ever got lice while growing up. I irrationally believed only dirty kids got lice and I was not a dirty kid. When I finally got lice at age 24 while travelling through Israel and living on a Moshav with a bunch of hippy, orthodox Jews (for the record, I am pretty certain we picked up the lice from a nasty hostel in the Old City), I felt pretty depressed. I was aghast when the host of the house we were staying in said something to the affect of, “When I get lice…” to which my immediate response was, “There is no ‘when’ in this situation.” In my opinion, “getting lice” would be a one.time.occurrence.only.period.

During that “one time occurrence,” Scott and I spent three days rotating our clothes to give enough time for the eggs and adults to die. Hot water and a decent shower were scarce and there was no washer or dryer on the Moshav, so we had to continue sleeping in our sleeping bags despite the fact they were contaminated. We slept with our hair soaked in a rosemary olive oil concoction and our heads wrapped in pink plastic shopping bags—a look I wanted to document on film for such an occasion like writing about it in a blog 14 years later, but Scott made threats and refused my photo attempts. We finally ended up hitchhiking to Jerusalem where we visited the first pharmacy we could find and used sign language (me scratching my head furiously at the lady behind the counter) to signal that we needed a bottle of strong pesticides for our heads.

Now a veteran at delousing my children and surviving two outbreaks in eight weeks, I’ve wearily come to realize that lice is just a part of growing up. For the kids, it was an annoying chore that required stuffed animals to be banished to quarantine and periods of time sitting still in front of movies while I got all chimpanzee mama-like on their heads with a nit comb. But for me, it was a learning experience. I’ve learned to trust that most people aren’t shallow enough to ostracize a child over something as simple as lice. They’ve either gotten it as kids or have kids who’ve had it. More likely, nobody wants one of those stray, miniscule bugs to lay a bunch of eggs on their kid’s head, only to have them hatch and unleash at least two weeks worth of meticulous cleaning upon their house. We parents don’t have time for that. I have decided that if the deliverer of plagues were to give me a choice between the stomach flu and lice, I would choose the stomach flu, any day.

I have also learned that lice isn’t a topic people talk about—probably for the same reason I was hesitant to discuss my own experience. If the literature online has to state that …”getting lice isn’t a result of poor hygiene and social status,” then you can pretty much deduce that it is a common assumption for both misconceptions to be correct. No wonder I felt ashamed.

 

The Decision to Work

I never felt I made a very good stay-at-home mom. My idle hands and mind crave deadlines, accountability and lots of social interaction. I am reminded of this every time I have a few days at home by myself or when I have been in between jobs. The first few days function like a water faucet, filling up my emotional and physical energy depleted from running around like a crazed superwoman short on time. But once I’ve had my fill of solitude, the quiet settles around me, heavily. I don’t enjoy the stillness in my mind, wonder what everyone else is accomplishing and assume that while they are out creating very important documents for very important people and curing cancer and saving the world and educating kids and laughing and enjoying themselves, I am home, with my forehead pressed against the sliding glass door, questioning my purpose in life. Those voices in my head that come out around day three of quietude and pester me about my existence? Yeah, they can be mean.

Between the time Lennon was an infant until he was three years old, I stayed home with him off and on, and honestly, I was terrible at the job. Lennon was bored, and I was bored. Even when I structured and scheduled out the day and signed him up for art and gymnastic classes and sought out play dates and remained vigilantly on the look out for massive and enthralling road and building work where we could gawk at backhoes like construction groupies, I still pined for 5:00 p.m. and my hubby to come home. I knew exactly how long it would take Scott to drive from his office to the house, and if he hadn’t arrived by 5:15 p.m. I was on the phone, crankily demanding an ETA. The mornings when I called him at work before 8:30 a.m. desperate to know how I was going to make it through the day are not what I consider highlights of my parenting career.

I really wanted to feel fulfilled staying home, but I never felt at ease in the role of a stay-at-home mom. By the time Calla was born, I had already tried various combinations of work and staying home, and I had determined, that for the sake of my sanity and our pocket book, it would be best if I headed back to work full time.

Fortunately, my kids love going to school. They spend their days with teachers who enjoy teaching them about things like the lifespan of a whale, and painting water-colored sunflowers and singing songs, and socializing with their friends. I think one of the best things I have ever done for my kids was to be honest about my need to work full time, and to acknowledge my limitations as a parent, and to be okay with calling upon the help of loving and caring teachers who have been thrilled at the idea of spending their days crawling around on the floor with my kids.

As much as I am at peace with my choice, or as much peace as I can possibly be in this society of guilty parenting, I still second guess myself regularly. Especially when a well-meaning parent raises her eyebrow about the amount of time my kids spend in after school care each day and launch questions at me, like when will they have time to study the violin or piano. And to this I say, three things: first, my kids don’t play the violin or piano, nor do I expect them to start anytime soon. Second, they take their lessons when we get home from work, and so far, that seems to work for us. Third, us mommies, we need to stick together and be supportive of the choices we make or are forced to make with our lives and our kids. There is no perfect parenting environment that fits for everyone. What works for one family isn’t necessarily going to work for another, so let’s be mindful and kind to each other.

I have spent the last seven years refocusing my career so I can work normal hours in an environment that is flexible and allows me to chaperone field trips and attend school events when they arise, and I have come to realize that I am a better mother when I balance my life with a career. A dear friend of mine realized she needed to quit her job to be home full time with her kids. Both decisions were difficult to make, and both are equally right.

I had a hard time trying to decide what sort of recipe to include in this post, but I think the most appropriate option for a piece like this is to just encourage take-out. On the toughest of days, a local restaurant can be the best friend of working and stay-at-home moms alike.

Goopy Little Hands

Last weekend, Kiddo #2 helped me make dinner. She was helpful and engaged. She stirred the sauce, poured and mixed ingredients and pressed up right.next.to.me. while I chopped and diced. I did my best to breathe deeply, let her have fun and not micro manage her when she sploshed sauce over the side of the sauce pan. She did great, and I twitched a lot, forced myself to refrain from making snappy comments and just let her be a part of my kitchen.

I am trying to cultivate more patience with my kids when they help me cook. I wish I didn’t care when floors and clothes got wet, or dirty or covered in paint or tomato sauce, but the wiring in my brain that gives me the patience to be crafty and focused with children is faulty. I have a tendency to short circuit and get bossy easily and say things like, “give me that,” and “let me do it.” I like my cupcakes to look pretty instead of smooshed, I hate picking up bits of paper and glitter off the floor, and I don’t like cleaning paint or glue off my or my kids’ fingers. I avoid most art projects that involve moisture and colors that stain and schedule activities that don’t involve scrubbing hands and faces afterward.

My aversion to messes doesn’t spill over into other areas of the house. I don’t seem to have a problem with piles of papers or clothes. I am not even all that bothered by clutter although I am definitely neater now that we have kids. But I can’t seem to handle wet gloppy kid messes. Even as a kid I didn’t like getting my hands sticky, though I did love to play with flour. I love how soft and cool flour feels while sifting through my fingers–until it turns into a wet gummy paste and then flour is quickly added to the icky list.

I want to let the kids slop on the frosting when decorating cupcakes and not feel my body tense up when they accidentally dump glittery sprinkles onto the floor. My kids have aprons they can wear, and I have a powerful vacuum and a Costco supply of sponges. We spend a lot of time in our kitchen, so I need to be able to teach my kids to cook while refraining from snatching items from their hands when they threaten to pour the entire contents into a dish. How bad could three extra tablespoons of oregano be in a pasta sauce? Apparently, we won’t be finding out because no matter how hard I try to contain my mild obsessive compulsive perfectionist tendencies, I end up hovering over my children, futzing and clucking while I attempt to keep spills to a minimum.

Scott has much more patience with the kids in the kitchen than I. I could leave the impromptu kiddo kitchen classes to him, but that just feels like I am giving up on my kids and myself. I don’t want to miss out on helping them grow up around the chopping block and stove. It would be easier to shoo my kids out of the kitchen and cook by myself instead of slowing down and taking the time to teach them how to chop vegetables and create meals. With limited time to wedge chores, fun, classes, homework, baths, sports and dinner into an already packed evening or weekend, I find it hard to slow my brain down to the speed of my five-year-old. I like to be quick, precise, efficient and focused when attempting to get a meal on the table in under 30 minutes. That said, it isn’t fair of me to deny them the opportunity to experience cooking and make mistakes in the kitchen.

Despite my desire to cook by myself last weekend, I worked really hard at maintaining patience so Kiddo #2 could enjoy herself and feel welcomed. I had to quietly tell myself to slow down a few times, which definitely helped me keep focused on her experience and remain calm. I had to remind myself that a spill can be wiped up easily and hands are super easy to rinse off. And even a less than tasty meal is only a minor inconvenience. I am trying to keep my kids’ kitchen failures in perspective. I expect as my kids grow older and maintain better control of their hands and are less likely to push half of dinner out of the pan and onto the stove, I will feel more comfortable cooking with them. In the meantime, I plan to keep inviting them into the kitchen no matter how much my body involuntarily lunges forward to prevent potential mistakes. I will cut myself a break though, and let them do the gloppy art projects at school.

Below is my stuffed shells recipe. The vegan ricotta involves smooshing your hands into the tofu to get it the right consistency. It’s a great recipe for kids to help make– and a task I much prefer to let them handle.

Stuffed Shells
Directions:
-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
-Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Once the water starts boiling, add in an entire box of jumbo pasta shells.
-While you are waiting for the water to boil and shells to cook, begin making the tomato sauce and tofu ricotta.

Tomato sauce ingredients:
2 large cans of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon of olive oil
5-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 tablespoon of oregano
1 tablespoon of dried basil or a small handful of fresh leaves that your kiddo harvested from your garden
6-7 good cranks of the pepper grinder
Salt to taste

Armed with her trusty pair of kid-friendly craft scissors…

…there was no reason she couldn’t tame the bolting basil herself.

Sauce directions:
-Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan
-Add the garlic
-Saute until the garlic has turned golden
-Add the two cans of tomatoes to the garlic (give the can opener to your kid and see if he/she can open it on their own) and the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low

While the sauce is simmering, start making the tofu ricotta. This can also be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

She started off thinking it would be fun to stick her hands into a bowl of squishy tofu.

But her face quickly proved that she loves sticky, messy fingers about as much as I do.

Tofu ricotta ingredients:
1 block of firm tofu, mashed by little hands if you have an extra pair living in the house
½ to ⅔ cups of Veganaise
2 tablespoons dried or fresh dill
2 teaspoons fresh basil (leftover from the earlier harvest)
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon pepper
salt to taste

Ricotta directions:
-Mash the tofu into a large bowl until it is a crumbly and mushy
-Add all the ricotta ingredients and stir well until it begins to resemble the consistency of ricotta
-Adjust seasonings to taste

Assemble:
-Once everything is ready, take a large casserole dish and scoop a few heaping spoonfuls of sauce into the bottom and spread evenly.
-Take a large soup spoon and stuff each shell full of the tofu ricotta.
-When you have snuggly filled the casserole dish with stuffed shells, cover the shells with the remaining tomato sauce.
-Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling up on the sides and the filling is heated through.
-Serve with homemade garlic bread and a huge tossed salad.

Snacks for Dinner

Last Thursday, Calla suggested we eat snacks for dinner. Her menu included soy yogurt, ice cream, spring rolls and Popsicles. Lennon requested Costco-style “samples” and dim sum. I didn’t feel like cooking a full meal and neither Scott nor I were interested in the remaining items on our weekly menu. He had eaten Asian food for lunch and didn’t want stir fry, and I had eaten a burrito and didn’t want Mexican. We weren’t able to find cilantro at the Farmer’s Market so fresh spring roll salad with a peanut sauce dressing was off the menu and Falafel would take too long.

After a week of crazy deadlines, skipped lunches at work and general heat malaise, I was feeling a lack of motivation and desire to enter the kitchen. Grabbing a recipe book for last minute dinner ideas wasn’t going to happen. I liked Calla’s idea of snacks for dinner, with some healthy modifications, of course.

Calla wasn’t happy that I changed up her menu. There was some compromising from me and lots of whining from her. I eliminated all the desserts, which basically left the spring rolls. I pulled out some hummus, leftover tofu ricotta from a stuffed shells recipe earlier in the week, carrots, celery, raw broccoli and marinated tofu and put together a veggie platter. I heated up the leftover pasta sauce and threw in a handful of frozen veggie meatballs, microwaved some cashew cream cheesy sauce leftover from a macaroni and cheese casserole from earlier in the week and assembled a couple of sandwiches which I cut into quarters. And I heated up a bagful of those awesome frozen vegetarian spring rolls from Costco–snacks and dim sum all in one. A container of seaweed salad, which Lennon deemed, “too chewy,” rounded out the meal.

Snacks for dinner wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great either, but I’ve been trying to be better about using up the leftovers in our fridge. I can’t say the fusion of Italian, Asian and hummus felt particularly awesome in my stomach, but for dinner on the table in 25 minutes after a long day, a much needed clearing out of the fridge, and a win for the kiddo who suggested the idea in the first place, snacks for dinner served its purpose.

Snack managers surveying the samples.

I’ve lost my spine. I was the girl who used to jump off 50 foot cliffs, ride roller coasters for the adrenaline rush and surf in the washing machine waves off the coast of Santa Cruz. Now I am just a middle-aged mommy wuss. While on vacation I took Lennon body surfing. He loved it. I thought it was pretty great too until a wave ground my body into the unforgiving shore and left sand imprints and bruises all over me. While I churned in the waves, the thought of my seven-year-old getting just as pounded forced my heart to drop a couple of feet into my knees. He was fine and loved the rough action of the waves. I got all motherly, gave a quick lecture on waves, rip tides, never turning your back on the ocean, blah, blah, safety, boring mother rambling on about something (insert the sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice here) and then suggested we hang out in the pool for a bit. He promptly declined my offer.

I had hoped my spine hadn’t completely turned to mush, but I know it began going soft a couple years ago when I rode California Screamin’ with Scott and his cousin Ami at Disney California Adventure. She’s my age and single with no kids. She was thrilled by the rush of the roller coaster, five gazillion loops and those horrible stomach lurching death drops into a hellish abyss. I was not. I prayed out loud, a lot, and cursed, a lot. I remember tearing up with relief when the ride finally ended. I crawled out of the car with sweaty palms, feet and my stomach trying to decide what exactly to do with my lunch. The guy I spoke with afterward who gave me a medical understanding of what the brain experiences on a roller coaster didn’t help my recovery either.

When I was younger, I swore I would never lose my spine for all things exhilarating. I would jump off cliffs just to mess with the head of my boyfriend who was afraid of heights but still felt compelled to jump if I did. I am sure he would enjoy knowing I was getting my karmic justice now. I blame motherhood. I never expected having kids would turn me into a bowl of mealy oatmeal.

I wish I could say I was carefree and relaxed about parenting and exposing my kids to adventurous situations, but I struggle with the idea of letting them experience life on their own. I battle my over-protective demons every single day, try to keep my mouth shut about the little dangers and save the lectures for the big ones. Lennon is getting to the age where he is going to start filtering my warnings, so I need to pick my freak outs carefully. Do I warn him about the slippery, muddy trail that he insists on running down? Sure, but I will try to limit my comments to just once in the beginning of the hike because when he lands hard on his bottom, the mud and bruises aren’t going to kill him. The fall may even teach him to be careful more than my yelps down the trail at him to “slow down!” Do I give him the “respect the ocean” speech and go swimming with him in the waves so his tiny 48 pound body doesn’t get pulled out to sea? Absolutely.

I couldn't have kept up with him on the trails, and yes, I tried.

He wore his mud stains well and with pride.

I know that just because I can’t seem to stomach the adrenaline rush anymore doesn’t mean I should encourage my children to live bland lives. Though the thought of my children jumping into crashing waves off a cliff into the ocean and getting sucked down and disappearing into a cauldron like we witnessed a few local boys do last week makes my whole body quease up–the part where we wouldn’t be able to save those boys should a rogue wave knock them out was particularly painful to watch. Adventure is good, but pushing the limits of life and death, not so much. I need to help my kids discern which is which and then trust that as they get older, they will make the RIGHT, I mean, mindful choices.

After a great deal of prodding from Lennon and some pointed looks from Scott, I toughened up and went back out into the waves and by the end of the trip, I was able to enjoy the ocean with my kid instead of constantly fearing his demise. I realized that the presence of the boogie boards we rented on the last day functioned a bit like an ocean security blanket for me. My reacquainting with the ocean and Lennon’s three days of experience navigating the waves definitely helped. Plus, we weren’t by ourselves on a remote lava shelf jumping into a churning cauldron of death. If something had happened, my chances of saving Lennon or finding someone who could were pretty great. Ironically, watching those boys jumping off that cliff helped me put body surfing on a relatively mild beach in front of a hotel into perspective.

As our kids get older, we will introduce more adventure into their lives. I am looking forward to 10 years from now when we can take them on the Napali Coast Kayak trip, and in the meantime, I will work at using those adventures as exercises to build up the muscles surrounding my soft spine. Perhaps some smaller adventures will keep it from atrophying altogether.

In the spirit of mush, I am re-posting a recipe for oatmeal but with some new toppings. My kids eat oatmeal all year long and since we recently visited Hawaii and already miss the tropical fruit, I suggest throwing in some fresh banana, brown sugar and topping it with chopped pineapple and toasted coconut. See, even oatmeal can be adventurous sometimes.

Homemade Oatmeal (Total cook time is 10-15 minutes.)
Directions:
-Add about a cup and a half of soymilk to a cast iron pan.
-Add in thick cut oats by the handful until they just begin to reach the top of the milk.
-Add a couple of dashes of cinnamon.
-Add a pinch or two of salt.
-Heat until the soymilk starts to boil around the edges, then drop to a medium simmer.
-Stir frequently as the milk begins to cook down and the oatmeal thickens. You want to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. My kids like their oatmeal slightly chewy so adjust the milk and simmer down to desired thickness.
-When the consistency is right (there really is no science to oatmeal), remove from heat and add chopped pineapple, shredded, toasted coconut, brown sugar, bananas and a touch more milk if you like.
-Serve with a side of toast and lilikoi jelly.