November 30, 2009

Alas, Poor Microwave

At 11:13 p.m. last night, my microwave died.

It's been on life support since the day after Thanksgiving. You'd punch in the time, push start and wait. It might turn on. It might not. You couldn't know until you pushed the button and it either worked or it didn't.

Now, you know. No question. It's completely non-responsive. Dead as a doornail.

And I can't replace it.

I can't replace it because my dryer broke. And then my dryer broke again.

I can't replace it because the $500 I'd budgeted for the 60,000 mile service on my crappy minivan became $1200 when they got in there and saw how neglected the poor thing had been.

I can't replace it because the overhead lights in my living room buzz and spark when you turn them on and I am unwilling to set the house on fire so now I sit here in the dark.

The faucet in the kids' shower is stripped and can be turned on only with a screwdriver. And now the darn thing is starting to drip. Hot water, no less. It's dripping hot water.

The fancy pop-up tub stopper broke, and now I can give my little guy a bath only by inverting a cup over the drain.

Two of my toilets need new flaps, I need to replace the door handle on my half bath, and I've shut off the hot water to the sink in there for want of a new washer. It's going to take an exterminator to get rid of the ant colonies in the basement. There's a hole in the roof of my shed, and I'm missing a good chunk of deck railing from where a tree fell three years ago.

My house is falling down around my ears.

So now I have to reheat my leftovers on the stove. Bake potatoes in the oven. Serve chicken nuggets cold.

Um, not sure what to do with the microwave popcorn, though.

But hey, I raked the yard. All by myself. I've got the blisters to prove it.

And the good news? Now the kids get to learn that "it's the thought that counts" applies to Santa, too. And, believe it or not, I think that's a pretty valuable thing to learn.

November 24, 2009

Due North

When I was in college, I took a philosophy course on ethics. Upshot of a semester's worth of learning: There really are no moral absolutes.

I mean, think about it. Even killing - something folks generally agree is bad - is sometimes okay. If you're defending yourself. Or your family. Or your country. But where one draws the line of okayness varies.

That kind of moral ambiguity killed my weekend.

It also probably killed my marriage. Because what I realized this weekend is that the very-very-nearly-ex and I, our moral code is totally, totally different.

Doesn't mean his is bad and mine is good. It just means they're different.

And, of course, I like mine better.

I realized all this while digesting various bits of disturbing information that floated my way last week. And I realized that, because I am who I am, in the end those bits of information didn't matter. I follow my moral compass. I pay attention to what it says and I act accordingly. And I hope, fervently, that this is what everyone does. Because it's this process that puts the demons to rest and lets you sleep at night. (Well, for most people, anyway. I'm still battling insomnia demons that have nothing to do with moral certitude).

Thing is, when you meet a guy, and you think you like him, and you start talking rings and churches and how many kids you want to have, you kind of assume your compasses both point north.

They don't always.

Guess it's another lesson learned. Ask for directions. And make sure everyone's heading north before you get in the car.

Veggie Girl

My diva's always had a very sensitive gag reflex. And trust me, this is not a good thing. Ear infections made her throw up. Coughing, too - and this was a child who one winter suffered through eight rounds of bronchiolitis. The least hint of a tummy bug would send the poor thing to the hospital.

This also applied to any new foods. A couple of Thanksgivings ago my diva tried green beans for the first time. She promptly threw them up. And then demanded dessert.

My kids don't exactly have adventurous palates, mostly because when they were little I had this fabulous but very demanding job. I couldn't get home for dinner. So dad "cooked" - or rather, nuked. And they got used to a pretty standard menu of chicken nuggets, raisin bread, cheese and fruit. In fact, on dad nights that's often still what they get.

So, a couple of years ago, in a desperate bid to wean them off of over-processed, over-salted, pre-packaged ick, I began a campaign to get them eating real food. It started with homemade pizza and braised chicken tenders and moved on from there. I can now make a whole week of meals without one thing coming out of a box. Well, unless you count macaroni and cheese. Which, of course, you should.

I also introduced some very basic vegetables: peas, corn, raw carrots and cucumbers. It took forever. I'd have to put a new thing on their plates at least a dozen times before they'd start eating it. Slow and steady. We've actually managed to get broccoli in the line-up this way. I put it on their plates every time I got the urge to make it, and now, at last, all three of them will eat it.

With my recent Family Dinner initiative, though, I'm cooking more, and I'm cooking for all of us. This means that I'm making food I like, too. And that means more veggies. I do offer at least one or two things I know the kids like, just so they don't go hungry. So far, there's been bread and fruit on the table every night. But I've got this long-time rule that the kids can't be excused until they've had one bite of everything. As a result, they are suddenly trying a whole lot more food,

And I'll be damned if it isn't working!

Last week, I steamed and buttered some brussels sprouts. Every child at the table tried them. My boys, not surprisingly, went "ew" after their required one bite. My diva? "Hey, this is pretty good!" And while she still ate just the one, she ate the whole thing. Next time, she'll eat two. And eventually - just watch - brussels sprouts will be a staple of her diet.

On Sunday it was baked carnival squash, scooped & smashed with a bit of butter and syrup. Again from the diva, "Hey, this is pretty good!"

And then she demanded broccoli for Monday.

My girl loves her veggies. Isn't she awesome?

November 18, 2009

Love the World

I am a geek.

In fact, I'm a geek on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. I've got a fair amount of sci fi geekness, a strong streak of grammar geekness, and a mountain of English lit geekness (actually, make that medieval lit geekness, which is worse because it means that somewhere along the line I actually learned Old English). The list is kinda endless.

I'm also a geography geek. And this week, that's a very cool thing to be. 'Cause it's Geography Awareness Week, and you can get free maps.

I love maps.

I come by this particular geekness quite honestly. For one thing, I grew up following my dad around the world. His work took him to India, Bangladesh, the Philippines. When I was 11, my sister and I flew to Manila all by ourselves. Unaccompanied minors jetting off around the world to visit our dad.

But it's not just about the traveling. My dad and stepmom, they have always loved this world of ours, and they made sure to share that love with us kids. And their house, it was a haven for a map geek. Maps out the wazoo. I still remember, in Bangladesh, there was only one spot in the whole house with the right kind of outlet for my hair dryer. It was right in front of a great big map of the world. No mirror; just a map. I was a teenage girl with - well, with hair - so I spent a lot of time in front of that map, exploring the world and trying to get my hair to feather back just so.

When I was a kid, I decided it would be fun to learn all 50 states in alphabetical order. I'd sit and list them out whenever I was bored. I even memorized the capitals to go along - in the order of their states -and let me tell you, that's a serious accomplishment. Montgomery ... Juneau ... Phoenix ... you can look up the rest.

By the time I got to college I could list 120 countries from memory, continent by continent. I'd keep myself awake in class by writing down every country I could remember. Though I'll admit, the Soviet Union did make that an easier task than it would be today.

The world's pretty darn important. And those maps, they open your eyes in a pretty special way.

My kids get the world, and I love that. In part, that's because we've been using au pairs for childcare since my littlest one was born. Seven au pairs from six different countries. My kids have an extended family that spans the globe. They can say "Sweet dreams" in German and "Stop tickling me!" in Japanese. They've danced around a maypole at midsummer. They eat Nutella and celebrate birthdays with Brazilian brigadeiro. Our lovely new au pair is Belgian, and I can't wait for the kids (and me!) to learn a little Dutch.

Even better? They can pick out every one of those countries - and several more - on a map.

So print out a great big map. Put it up, and teach your kids to love the world.

And, for the record? It's Alabama Alaska Arizona Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Vermont Virginia Washington West Virginia Wisconsin and Wyoming. And no, the District of Columbia is not on the list.

November 16, 2009

Mind Your Manners

My kids and I were lucky enough to be invited out to dinner on Friday. It was a gracious and spur of the moment invitation from a family with as many folks in it as we have - more, actually - who thought nothing of adding places for four more to their table. They are lovely and wonderful and had just had all three of my kids over for a playdate. All three of 'em. Which makes this family not only gracious but brave.

So we joined them for dinner. Turkey, potatoes, corn, a little fruit and bread.

And I learned some things about my kids.

They don't know how to butter their own bread. They can't cut their own food. They can't peel a banana. Seriously. The peel had them totally stumped.

Blushing yet? 'Cause I was.

They did a great job with some things. They tried stuff - seriously, my very picky kids tried most everything, and were also well-mannered enough to say a simple, "No, thank you," if they didn't like something. And my diva was just lovely with the compliments and the please-and-thank-yous.

So I've done a few things well.

Other things? Not so much.

To make my life easy, I've settled into a routine with the kids. I make a few meals - mac & cheese, chicken tenders, quesadillas - on a rotation. We do a family dinner maybe once a week - pretty much always spaghetti. More often than not, though, I'm just feeding them something kid-friendly, and I grab a bite later. I figured the quality talking time, that was happening because I was there. And it was. That's a good thing.

What wasn't happening? My kids weren't learning to do stuff on their own. They weren't learning to use a knife or pour their own drinks. And they were learning only half their manners.

That changed tonight.

Today I bought a great big sole fillet. I breaded it and baked it. I made up a pot of brown jasmine rice (yum!) and mixed half of it with cheese. I steamed some broccoli and washed a few grapes, which I thoughtfully left on the stem. I cut up some Italian bread. And I put it all in serving dishes in the middle of the table. And then we sat down together to eat.

My kids put their napkins in their laps. They asked me to pass the butter. They learned to cut their fish. Even better - they ate their fish. And their rice. And their broccoli. And the temper-infused grouchfest that preceded dinner? It vanished in giggles and table games and gentle reminders to keep elbows off the table and mouths closed while chewing.

My Aspie, who'd heard me say I'd been embarrassed by their manners on Friday, said, "Why don't you give us manners lessons, Mom?"

I just did.

And I bought a whole chicken for roasting, and a large slab of ham, too. My kids and I, we're going to school. I can't wait!

November 13, 2009

Cheesecake and Cosmos

My nearly ex and I, we are officially counting down to the end of life in limbo.

Yesterday, we got all dolled up and went to the office of an Examiner - basically, a lawyer who gets to be queen for the day. A dear friend came, too, to serve as a witness. The Examiner and my own lawyer asked us a series of yes or no questions, some of which were disturbingly intimate because apparently the state we live in feels a need to be absolutely certain that you are not even remotely inclined to reconcile, even by accident.

They don't make divorce easy in this state. Not by a long shot.

But that was it. A quick and generally painless 15 minutes, and then we were done. And a pretty cheery 15 minutes it was, too. The nearly ex and I were in good spirits, I think just out of relief that the long road back to singledom is nearly done. In the next two weeks, the Examiner's report will go in front of an actual judge, who will sign off on things and issue the final decree. And then limbo is over.

Oh, and I get my old name back. This is a good thing. I liked my old name.

All that was cause for celebration. To be clear - you're not celebrating the end of the marriage, when you toast to this stuff. Because that's a sad thing, even if it's a right thing. What you're celebrating is the end of the process. The end of limbo. And the start of something new.

So you need something that does both. You need to comfort the little sad bit and celebrate the happy bit.

While the nearly ex headed off to watch the kids (it being his night and all), my friend and I drove out in the pouring rain and found The Cheesecake Factory, home to the perfect balance of comfort and joy. There was cheesecake - pumpkin cheesecake, and oh that's yummy stuff. And cosmos, you know, for the joy. Well, she had a mojito. But the cosmopolitan, that was mine, and yes, it made me happy.

Interesting day. A little happy. A little sad. More happy than sad.

And now, we wait.

'Cause, you know, we haven't done enough of that.

November 3, 2009

Don't Eat the Pork, Reprise

Three weeks ago tomorrow, my oldest came home with a random fever. Three days and done. My doctor tells me this is what the swine flu looks like in a kid with a kick-ass immune system.

By Monday afternoon, my diva had spiked a raging fever, hovered there for days and days, and finally recovered the following Monday.

On Friday, the little guy got it. But because by then we had confirmation that we were dealing with H1N1, we had Tamiflu at the ready.

My au pair got sick on Saturday. I got sick on Monday.

All swine flu, right?


Turns out, mine was some other virus doing a damn fine impression of the swine flu, most likely because it was the similar but much less scary seasonal flu. How do I know? Because today, after 24 hours in bed shivering, feverish, and too weak to lift my own damn head, I was diagnosed, at last, with the swine flu.

The good news? It's not pneumonia.

I think that's about it.

What sucks about this? Oh, so many things ...
  • I don't qualify for Tamiflu. My kids have all had the damn flu, so I'm no longer considered high risk. I get to suffer through this the hard way.
  • I can't concentrate enough to knit. Or read. Or write (which means this will need a lot of editing). Though I can type lying down, so the computer seems to be my new happy place. Hello, Facebook. ('Cause, you know, I don't spend enough time there as it is.)
  • I'm coughing. A lot. Anyone reading this who has also given birth to three children will know exactly why that's so awful.
  • I'm a single mom. A single mom with a phenomenal au pair and an unusually helpful nearly-ex-husband. But there are many times when it's still only me on call, and you don't get to turn that off just 'cause you're sick.
  • Two weeks battling two different flus mean I'm missing enormous amounts of work. All of which I'll have to make up. Can you say "relapse"? I can.
  • I'm likely going to have to cancel all my weekend plans. Remember that me time I keep talking about? Gone. But hey, at least now I'll have time to disinfect the house. Yay.
And the number one most sucky thing about this nasty flu?

I can't hug my kids.


P.S. If you, too, are caught with your Tamiflu down and want a more natural approach to immunity boosting, try my friend's Stinky Soup (known to Yoga Journal as the Immune Booster Soup, which they published in December 2006).

I'll admit, I do make some changes so that it's not quite so stinky and I'll actually want to eat it.

Immune Booster Soup
4 c. mushroom or chicken broth
1 small yellow onion, chopped
4 to 10 cloves garlic (to taste), crushed and chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 to 8 shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 to 3 T. grated ginger root (to taste)
3 T. chopped fresh parsley

Bring the broth, onion, garlic, carrot, mushrooms, and ginger root to a slow boil. Reduce heat and simmer on low, covered, for 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

Remove from heat. Add fresh lemon juice, parsley, and any remaining garlic.

Cover and steep for 5 minutes.

My version
Yesterday, I sauteed all the stinky bits in olive oil, thereby destroying most of their immune properties. I used an enormous amount of shiitake mushrooms. I forgot the carrot and had no parsley or fresh lemon, all of which would have been lovely. I added a package of Japanese noodles, a splash of lime juice, a little sesame oil and some soy sauce.

So in other words, I totally cheated.

November 1, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

I love Halloween.

When I was a kid, it was all about homemade costumes, made-from-scratch popcorn balls and hometown Halloween fests where you bobbed for apples and watched your sister win the prize for most creative costume. She was a turtleneck-headed monster with a mask made from styrofoam bits, construction paper and tinfoil, and she was awesome.

I was a princess. I was always a princess. Of course, I was a princess in a dress brought back from India with my face "hennaed" in waterproof eyeliner by my artist mom. But still, a princess.

I'm not so much into the commercial bits of Halloween - the big puffy air-blown pumpkins and cemeteries in the front yard, the giant Halloween stores with countless cheaply-made costumes and scary rubber masks, the oceans and oceans of candy. But I don't mind them. The way we celebrate as a society, it's very American. And it's kinda cool.

For me, though, Halloween is something more than ghosts and chocolate and dry ice. It's also about my Oma, who passed away in 2000 after a long and interesting life. I think of her nearly every day, but more, of course, on her birthday. Yesterday, on Halloween, she would have been 101 years old.

So now, with the kids, Halloween is a chance to share the values I learned from my Oma, passed along through my own parents. We knock out some of the commercialism and take some time together. Each year, my kids & I pick costumes we can create by hand (though sometimes the drive to be a character means we pick up a superhero suit at Target). We bake cookies shaped like little black cats and send them off to school parties. We pick pumpkins from a pumpkin patch, draw faces on them with Sharpies and then carve them out meticulously and light them up.

It's still about the costumes, the candy haul and the sugar high. But it's also about spending time together, creating and planning, doing things for each other. Now granted, it's often me doing most of the work on this stuff - my kids are fabulous and talented, but they're still a bit young to handle a sewing machine. The idea that we're thinking and creating and being together, though - that's still important, and it's what they get out of this. At least, I hope they do.

I do love Halloween.

Oh, and bonus for the food fans: you, too, can make black cat cookies! I got this recipe from Taste of Home's Halloween Party Favorites in 2005 and have made it every year since. The cookies are not terribly sweet - but, the dough is stiff and these shape beautifully.

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
3 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup baking cocoa
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
24 wooden craft or popsicle sticks (I usually leave these out)
24 red hot candies
48 pieces candy corn (be careful - I'm a candy corn fiend, so if you buy these too early, I might just come to your house and eat all your candy corn before you're ready to bake ... that's what happens at my house, anyway)

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt; gradually add to the creamed mixture. Roll dough into 1-1/2 inch balls. Place 3 in. apart on lightly greased baking sheets (I just use parchment paper & skip the greasing). Insert a wooden stick into each cookie. Flatten with a glass dipped in sugar. Pinch top of cookie to form ears. For whiskers, press a fork twice into each cookie. Bake at 350 F for 10-12 minutes or until cookies are set. Remove from the oven; immediately press on candy corn for eyes and red-hot candies for noses. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield: 2 dozen.